The Primary Lesson From California: It’s Not an Open and Shut Case

A recent National Journal article (hat tip to Max Kagan) reprises a familiar journalistic lament: “[T]the existence of closed primaries in 12 states,” the article subheading proclaims, “keep[s] voters away from polls and polarize Congress.” (Full disclosure: the author, Kaveh Waddell, is a 2013 graduate of my home institution Middlebury College.) In this instance, Waddell’s immediate concern was with the nearly 241,000 voters in New Mexico who could not participate in that state’s primaries last Tuesday because they were independents and thus not affiliated with a political party. But his argument has broader implications. Indeed, the belief that closed primaries in House elections increase partisan polarization is widely shared among journalists and pundits. And, in fact, the logic underlying this claim is superficially appealing: by limiting voting during the nominating process to members of a single party, closed primaries exclude participation by the more ideologically moderate independent voters. As a consequence, nominations tend to be won by the more ideologically extreme candidate, which in turns produces a more polarized Congress.

Moreover, if this scenario is correct, the cure seems equally obvious: replace closed primaries with open ones, in which voters of any affiliation may vote in either party’s primary. Or, better yet, go one step further and eliminate party primaries altogether. This is the logic behind California’s Proposition 14, which as of June, 2012 established that state’s “top two” nominating system, in which all candidates, regardless of party, face off in a single nomination contest from which the two highest vote getters advance to the general election, regardless of party. (This differs from the so-called blanket primary in which all candidates are listed on a single ballot, but they only compete with other candidates from the same party.) The idea behind Proposition 14, consistent with the logic driving the National Journal article, is to give moderate voters a better opportunity to select more centrist candidates to run in the general election.

Despite the intuitive appeal of this line of reasoning, however, political scientists have not found conclusive evidence that closed primaries do in fact produce more ideologically extreme candidates than do open primaries which are used to varying degrees in most states in the U.S. Why might this be? One reason is that when we unpack the logic underlying the assumptions built into the National Journal and related articles, we find that our predictions regarding the relative impact of closed vs. open primaries depends in part on our expectations regarding how strategic voters are. For example, in an open system, what happens if partisan voters cross over to vote for the weakest candidate in the opposing party’s nominating election, as happened in Vermont’s 1998 Senate race? (See Fred Tuttle, Vermont’s “Man with a Plan”!) Depending on what assumptions we make, it is possible to argue that open primaries should produce more extreme candidates, not less extreme.

It also may be that many voters aren’t very good, in the absence of party cues, at discerning ideological differences between candidates. This may be particularly problematic for challengers who are generally far well less known by voters than are incumbents. Finally, partisan actors, such as campaign donors and other activists, who have a vested interest in seeing more ideologically-extreme candidates win elections may exert enough influence to trump institutional factors such as open primaries.

Whatever the reason, the empirical work with which I am familiar on this topic suggests that we probably shouldn’t be surprised that the initial results from California’s “top two” system have not seemed to produce more moderate candidates. As Jaime Fuller points out in her Washington Post story today, based on last Tuesday’s results only 7 of California’s 53 House races under the “top two” system feature races involving two members of the same party. Of course, whether that is a glass half-full or half-empty result depends in part on one’s perspective. Perhaps more importantly, however, as Fuller writes, “[T]here 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… .In most of the other congressional races, the same outcomes happened that would have occurred under the old primary system anyway. The ideologically pure Republican and the predictably lefty Democrats made the runoff, just as they would have if two separate primaries had been held.” (Full disclosure: Jaime is a political science graduate of my home institution Middlebury College where I served as her academic adviser.)

To be sure, as my former grad colleague Dan Stid cautions, the California system has only been in play for one and one-half election cycles, so it is early to draw definitive conclusions. It may take a while for voters, candidates and partisan activists to adjust to the new rules. But, for now, the early results are consistent with the expectations of political scientists as laid out in previous research. Moving toward open primaries, or more, such as California’s top two system, is not likely to moderate electoral outcomes in the absence of other changes.

(And, perhaps not incidentally, these two articles also suggest that Middlebury political science majors like Fuller have a better understanding of U.S. electoral dynamics than do international political economy majors like Waddell!)



  1. Bravo, Kaveh. I can only hope to someday write something with enough circulation that I have the opportunity to be publicly shamed by none other than Professor Dickinson himself.

    Despite my agreement that IPE majors are in fact inferior, I think the true lesson to be learned here is that Middlebury alums are taking over the world!

  2. Anna,

    There was no shaming intended – as you note, both Jaime and Kaveh are helping to spread the Middlebury brand far and wide. But I do think Kaveh’s article might have benefited from a bit more exposure to the American political science subfield. It is, after all, the most scientifically advanced of the four political science subfields, as you well know. :~)

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