Tag Archives: open primaries

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.



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!)