Will Open Primaries Reduce Polarization?

The New York Times printed this op ed by New York Senator Chuck Schumer yesterday, in which Schumer made the familiar claim that to reduce partisan polarization, we should open up party primaries to all voters, regardless of partisan affiliation. In particular, he cites with approval adopting a version of the “top-two primary system” in which “all voters, regardless of party registration, can vote and the top two vote-getters, regardless of party, then enter a runoff.” That’s the system adopted in 2010 in California, in time for this summer’s nominating process there.

Schumer’s impulse is understandable – in theory, by opening primaries, you allow independents and more moderate voters to participate in the nominating process, thus increasing the odds that more moderate candidates will be nominated to run in the general election. In contrast, under closed primaries dominated by party purists, logic suggests the tendency is to nominate the more ideologically extreme candidate, leaving moderate voters to choose from two extreme candidates in the general election. As Schumer puts it, “The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.”

While well intentioned, however, the problem with Schumer’s proposal is that there is little evidence suggesting open primaries will reduce polarization. Consider recent results in California. As former Middlebury College student Jaime Fuller noted in this Washington Post piece, the early evidence from the California experiment with the top two system are not encouraging for Schumer’s argument. She writes, “If you look at last month’s results, however, there aren’t many congressional races you can point to where moderates made the final round — even in those seven races where two members of the same party made the runoff.”

More generally political scientists have not found much evidence that tinkering with the primary voting rules has much impact on the level of polarization in legislatures (see here and here and  here). There seems to be three reasons why open primaries don’t seem, by themselves, to produce more moderate candidates. First, it remains the case that more extreme voters tend to participate in greater proportions even in open primaries. As I’ve noted many times before, political activism and more extreme views go hand-in-hand. Second, as Seth Masket points out, party activists, who tend to be more ideologically extreme, still control a variety of means, including endorsements, money and campaign expertise, which they can use to help their favored candidates get a leg up in the selection process. Third, it appears that in the California top-two election process, voters were not always able to distinguish the more ideologically moderate candidate running under a party label.

This does not mean the California experiment is a failure – it has only been in place for one and half election cycles, and it may yet produce a more moderate candidate field as voters, and candidates adjust to the new system. But for now, contrary to Schumer’s claim, open primaries do not seem to be the remedy, by themselves, to the hyper-partisanship afflicting our political system.

Schumer also cites a second factor that he believes has increased polarization: gerrymandering – the drawing of House district lines in ways that that enhance the reelection prospects of certain candidates. Again, however, the empirical evidence, which I’ve discussed previously, does not support Schumer’s claim.

If open primaries and “neutrally”-drawn districts are not going to reduce polarization, then what will? For reforms to work, they need to increase the participation of the more moderate voters in the nominating process. This Bipartisan Policy Study contains a number of recommendations for doing so. Among the electoral reforms, it suggests a common national primary day for all congressional nominating races and easing registration requirements and strengthening outreach to make it more likely that the less politically engaged will vote in primaries. Eliminating caucuses as a means of nominating candidates would also help. Even here, however, without additional institutional reforms, it is unclear just how much these incremental changes will reduce the level of partisan polarization in Congress. But without additional reforms like these,  open primaries aren’t likely to do the trick, contrary to what Schumer might believe.

UPDATE 7.23.14: Jonathan Bernstein takes on the Schumer proposal in this Bloomberg column and comes to the same conclusion: open primaries will not reduce polarization.

 

 

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