Home > News > Nonpartisan primaries as a solution to congressional polarization?
111 views 5 min 0 Comment

Nonpartisan primaries as a solution to congressional polarization?

- March 25, 2010

When I saw this op-ed by Phil Kiesling the other day (recommending nonpartisan primary elections as a way of reducing polarization in Congress), I had several thoughts.

John Sides offers a more thorough, research-based discussion of the effects of open primaries, which I’ll discuss below. But first my immediate reactions to Kiesling’s op-ed:

1. The proposal seemed reasonable to me. Electorates in partisan primaries are much more partisan (of course) than general election voters.

2. There will certainly be side effects. (I was going to say “unanticipated consequences” but then I realized that’s not the right thing to call them since I’m anticipating them right now.) For example, you could have a district that’s 60% in favor or party A, but then in the primary there could be 5 candidates from party A and only 1 each of parties B and C (because the candidates from those parties did a better job of coordination and picked just one candidate). The resulting general election–a matchup between the two leading vote-getters in the primary–could then be B vs. C, which doesn’t seem quite right.

3. On second thought, though, I don’t see the above problem as so serious. Every now and then a congessmember gets elected isn’t a good match for the views of his or her district. If it’s a big problem, the congressmember won’t be reelected. If the larger effects are beneficial, it’s hardly a tragedy for the wrong winner to be sitting in Congress for two years.

4. The larger problem I’d worry about is that the aforementioned need for coordination would lead to an unofficial prmary-before-the-primary where each party tried to winnow down its field to one candidate. Related to this is the nature of multiple-candidate voting, which is inherently unstable, both because differences between candidates of the same party can be minor and difficult to perceive, and because of the potential for strategic (or, as the British would say, tactical) voting, not wanting to waste one’s vote on a candidate who doesn’t have a chance to be in the top two.

5. That said, the above problems are already occurring in closed primaries. So, to the extent that polarization is a concern, open primaries might well be a big deal.

6. My final thought about Kiesling’s proposal was that political scientists would be inclined to bash it. I’ve noticed for many years that political scientists tend to be dismissive of campaign reform proposals, partly from research experience–it’s rare to find that one factor can make a big difference–and partly because of a general support of the political system as it is.

In his discussion, John didn’t disappoint me regarding point 6. This is not to say that the study he cites has any mistakes. I just think that John has put a political scientist’s spin by emphasizing the null results. John summarizes the estimated effects as:

(1) not big enough to do anything near what the proponents of primary reform claim, and

(2) not big enough to affect the day-to-day dynamics of policymaking in state and national legislatures.

I’ll buy the first point–certainly, advocates exaggerate the importance of their pet ideas. But I don’t know about #2. Remember that zero Republicans voted for the recent health care bill. And we all know about the California state legislature. I’d think that even a few crossover legislators of each party and a few centrist candidates running and winning election, might make a big difference in how the legislature operates.

Changing priorities?

One more thing. It’s my impression that the people who propose political reforms of this sort are generally on the center-left of the political spectrum. (For example, Phil Kiesling, who wrote above-linked op-ed, is identified as a Democrat.) With all the struggle with the health care bill, lots of Democrats were upset about polarization. Now that the bill has passed, a lot of people on the center-left might start to have warmer feelings about political polarization and party discipline. I say this not to call into question any of the research that John was cited, but just to reflect upon the timing of some of these proposals. My impression is that voters on the whole remain unhappy about polarization, even if they are unlikely to go so far as to express such feelings at the ballot box.