Home > News > Are Primary Electorates Unrepresentative?
58 views 3 min 0 Comment

Are Primary Electorates Unrepresentative?

- January 3, 2008

Yesterday’s New York Times featured this piece about how the timing and commitment required of the Iowa caucuses — a couple hours on a Thursday night — means that certain groups of people cannot participate. Jodi Kantor writes:

bq. Because the caucuses, held in the early evening, do not allow absentee voting, they tend to leave out nearly entire categories of voters: the infirm, soldiers on active duty, medical personnel who cannot leave their patients, parents who do not have baby sitters, restaurant employees on the dinner shift, and many others who work in retail, at gas stations and in other jobs that require evening duty.

She goes on to note the level of turnout in Iowa (see this post for more on that topic), and then quotes a law professor (not a political scientist!) on the question of representation:

bq. But “just as nonrepresentative as Iowa is of the country, Iowa caucusgoers are nonrepresentative of Iowa as a whole,” said Samuel Issacharoff, who teaches election law at New York University.

What does the political science research suggest? It suggests that Iowa caucusgoers and primary voters in other states are not unrepresentative of general election voters more generally. In this piece in The Forum, Alan Abramowitz argues:

bq. In fact there appears to be very little difference between the ideologies of each party’s primary voters and the ideologies of its general election voters.

His goal is to debunk a related hypothesis — that “extreme” primary voters contribute to the polarization of the two parties — but his findings speak nicely to the general question of representation.

Concerns about representation are justified in a normative sense. Electoral processes should facilitate, not hinder, participation. But we should not assume that outcomes would be different if a larger number of people participated — a subject discussed in this earlier post. (One caveat: to my knowledge, there are no studies of whether larger turnout in caucuses and primaries would produce different outcomes.)

This post falls into what I’m sure will ultimately be a well-populated category: On News Stories That Would Benefit from Some Political Science.

[Thanks again to Ray La Raja for making the Abramowitz piece available.]

Topics on this page