Changing the way the primaries work probably won’t make politics less divisive
Republican candidates across the country are trying to win over former President Donald Trump’s supporters ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, so it is not surprising that many are. choosing to go all out on the false claim that the 2020 elections were stolen from him. The idea is that by embracing this lie, they could increase their electoral chances; is one of the reasons why many Republican lawmakers have not disputed this falsehood..
This extreme maneuver would seem to support the argument that our primary elections contribute greatly to the increasing polarization and conflict that we see in our politics. However, as a report by the expert group New america FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman details that the primaries are not really a major catalyst for why Congress is so polarized; therefore, changing the way the primaries work may not do much to fix the problem.
Politicians in office have moved even further to the political extremes in recent elections, in part because they are preoccupied with a primary challenge. But studies suggest that the primary electorate itself is no more ideologically extremist than the general electorate. Rather, the bigger problem is the decline in competitive electoral districts. Only about 1 in 6 congressional districts were “swinging” in the 2020 general election, compared to about 2 in 5 in 2000.
However, the rapid decline in competitive elections is not due to our primary system. It is mainly due to the partisan classification, whereby the Democratic areas are becoming more Democratic and the Republican areas more Republican, either because people are changing their attitudes to better match their party or they are moving into areas where their preferences they are already dominant.
The result, of course, is that with fewer competitive districts, primaries are often more important than general elections, as it is at this stage that the eventual winner is selected. That’s a big reason why headlines fear a main challenge even if few incumbents lose the primaries – It is the primary that matters more and more for electoral survival.
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However, the argument that primaries generate more polarization is not necessarily true, as studies do not clearly show that primary voters are more extreme than those who vote only in general elections. That is, the average Democrat who votes in a primary may not be much more liberal than the average Democrat who votes only in November; the same premise applies to Republicans.
This lack of an obvious ideological gap between primary and general voters helps explain why reforms aimed at expanding the primary electorate have not produced significant results. Reformers argue that a more open primary system, such as a open primary, in which no match registration is required, or a the first two primaries, where all candidates run regardless of party and the two with the most votes advance, will produce a more moderate electorate and more moderate candidates. However, neither has actually happened.
Studies suggest that changing the primary system from a closed system, in which only those who register in the party can vote, to an open primary or a primary of the first two does not actually alter the composition of the electorate of the primaries. In fact, the electorate in more open primaries may be slightly more extreme. (This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, considering that most independents vote similarly to openly partisan voters, and moderates often hold idiosyncratic and sometimes extreme views.)
Furthermore, the more open primary systems have not attracted more intermediate candidates, nor have they made them elected. Multiple studies find small or not evidence what more open primary systems attract more moderate candidates to apply or to win more often. Revealingly, in his study, Drutman examined the average ideological position of House members during the past five congresses based on the type of primary used to nominate them and found little difference by primary type for either party. Rather, the ideology was much more aligned with how red or blue the district was.
That said, there is a new primary system: Alaska’s the first four – that could pay dividends in a way that others have not. In 2022, candidates from all parties will run in a primary, and the four highest-scoring votes will advance to the general election, where voters will use classification voting to decide the winner. In theory, such a system could reduce incumbents’ concerns about being “primary” because, with high recognition and abundant resources, they are more likely to make it to the general election if four candidates, rather than one or two, advance.
However, the top-four primaries could still suffer from some of the same problems that have plagued the top-two primaries in the two states that currently use it, California and Washington. That is, a top two primary in a deep red or blue district sometimes sends two candidates from the dominant party to the general election. In that situation, the reformers expected the voters of the other party to support the more moderate contender, but that hasn’t really worked. Instead, the voters of the other party often don’t bother voting Because they may have difficulty differentiating among the candidates of the dominant party. In other words, a Democrat may view two Republican candidates as two sides of the same coin and choose to abstain; similarly, a Republican can have the same reaction when two Democrats are on the ballot.
We may see a similar problem emerge in general elections in the top four system, in which voters may have to rank two or more candidates from the opposing party. This may not be a big problem in a high-profile race like the 2022 Senate race in Alaska because voters will be more informed about that race. But in a race that receives less attention, such as a House election in a state with many districts (if such a state implemented this system), voters in a random district are less likely to be able to easily discriminate between who is more moderate among those. candidates from the other party.
Even in a high-profile race like the Alaska Senate race in 2022, the top-four system won’t necessarily help an incumbent like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has actively challenged Trump in a state he won by 10 points in 2020. While other top contenders could still enter the race and Murkowski has not officially announced his bid for re-election, it looks more and more as if facing another notable republican running to his right: Former Alaska Department of Administration Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka. And Murkowski’s restraint could actually hurt her because it has significantly eroded her position in the Alaska Republican Party in what is, remember, a pretty red state. The State party, for example, has censured her for voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment and then Tshibaka backed, who also won the Trump award coveted endorsement. However, Murkowski is no stranger to close racing. After losing the nomination in the Republican primaries in 2010, won reelection as a written candidate in the general election, thanks to her ability to attract broad sectors of the state’s electorate, such as Alaska Natives and some democrats. However, his anti-Trump bona fides could make it harder for him to win this time around, as he might have a hard time holding on to a significant chunk of the Republican base, which may be necessary to win.
Murkowski should still be able to advance to November in the top-four primaries, but could run into trouble if something like the following scenario plays out in the rank-pick voting process: In the first-choice vote, Tshibaka wins the majority of Los Republican voters and Democrats have a high-profile candidate who they largely support in place of Murkowski. In this situation, Murkowski could easily find himself in third place among first-choice votes. So even if she is the second-choice candidate preferred by the majority of voters who backed the fourth-place candidate, she could still be in third place after those votes are reallocated, which would spell the end of the game. In other words, even if Murkowski was the preferred choice of the state electorate in a head-to-head showdown with Tshibaka, that wouldn’t matter if she was never in a position to find out. So, contrary to reformers’ expectations, a top-four primary might not be the ticket to victory for the more moderate candidates either.
This certainly does not mean that primary reforms are not worth undertaking. Considering that many elections are decided in the primaries and not in the general elections, the first four are, in a way, more democratic because they give more voice to the larger general electorate. It’s just that the more open primary systems, even Alaska’s top four, aren’t likely to do much to decrease polarization. And that’s probably because the biggest driver of polarization is the widening gulf between the two sides. Ultimately, the division Between The parties are a much stronger source of our nation’s increasingly polarized politics than any candidate maneuvering in the primaries, or how the primaries themselves work.