The Problem With Primaries

We’re complete policy wonks, and we own that.

We talk about politics and polls and studies and data all the time. And we have a hunch that you’re keen on knowing what’s going on “in the weeds.” So we wanted to share some things we think are interesting right now. 

The Problem With Primaries

Using primary elections to select party nominees for elected office is generally viewed as a progressive democratic (little “d”) reform of the “smoke-filled room” of party conventions. Unfortunately, the modern partisan primary—particularly within the GOP—has turned out to have an unintended consequence: extremism in our elected officials and dysfunction in our legislatures.

Sound extreme? There’s data to back all of that up. In 2018, the Brookings Institution interviewed primary election voters, and found that those voters had significantly stronger primary attachments, identifying as “strong” Democrats or Republicans more frequently.

However – and this is critical – the hyper-partisan nature was not equal. There were far more “very conservative” Republicans than “very liberal” Democrats voting in the primaries.

Okay, you might say. More very conservative Republicans make it out to vote in primaries. What difference does that make? 

A pretty significant one, actually, because primary voters decide a supermajority of Congress.

In 2020, only 10% of eligible voters voted in the primary. And for a number of reasons (including geographic sorting and gerrymandering), 83% of congressional districts are “safe” Republican or Democratic seats.

That means the 10% of voters who participated in the primary … decided the composition of 83% of the House.

That startling fact has wide-ranging legislative consequences. Because more “very conservative” (and to a lesser extent “very liberal”) voters vote in primaries, House members are especially keen to keep that specific segment of their base happy, lest they “get primaried.”

The fear of getting primaried leads legislators to actively reject compromise, even while the American people call for bipartisan leadership and compromise. (In fact, there’s a whole book written on the topic, called Rejecting Compromise: Legislators’ Fear of Primary Voters by Sarah Anderson, Daniel Butler, and Laurel Harbridge-Young.) 

Consider what a recent Missouri poll of Republican likely primary voters telegraphs to potential Republican Senate nominees. When asked “would you rather have someone who’s first priority is helping the State of Missouri OR whose first priority is fighting the agenda of the Biden administration?” a whopping 51% of respondents chose “fighting the agenda of the Biden administration.”

Again, that poll question was just to GOP likely primary voters. So is their view representative of all Missouri Republicans? Likely not, but because all Missouri Republicans don’t vote in the primary … it doesn’t matter. 

The potential GOP nominees for that Senate seat now fully understand that, rather than prioritizing helping Missourians they need to focus their attention – and campaign – on directly attacking the Biden administration.

All this to say, without a massive revision of the primary system, the incentives for legislative dysfunction will continue, and ideologically extreme candidates – who don’t necessarily represent the views of even a majority of the voters in their districts – will win primaries and go on to “fight” in Congress.

Now, just to be clear, we are not advocating a return to the smoke-filled rooms of the party conventions of old; we think that in a democracy the voters should decide who is in the general election. Our solution would be a single nonpartisan ranked-choice primary that sends the top 3 or 4 candidates to a ranked-choice general election.

So… in the meantime, what do we do about it?

Well, as much as we hate to see it, passing democracy reforms like prohibitions on partisan gerrymandering is a nonstarter unless Democrats are in charge. We’re already working hard to build up our grassroots programs that fund Democratic nominees in key congressional races and state legislatures. 

We are eager to expand our state-based work  especially to certain battleground states where squeezing every last vote out of every last district will prove critical in coming years. Unfortunately, we don’t have unlimited resources. (Sad trombone.)

That’s where you come in!

Will you help us build the organization we need to expand this proven model to other parts of the country?

Yes! I want to help!

Expanding to more states is time and resource intensive. It’s on our 2021 goal list, but we just can’t get there without people like you. If everyone who got this email pitched in $25, we’d be halfway to our goal!

Just $25? That’s one night of takeout. No problem, I’m in!

I’ll double up for $50!

I can do $100!

If we don’t hit our goal, we’re not going to be able to go into states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Arizona – states that we need to invest in now to be ready for 2024.

If you believe squeezing every last vote out of every last district will be important in 2024, kicking in a few dollars now to support our work will go a long way toward making that happen.

Support us with the links above, or with the button below. Thanks in advance for supporting our Wonky Work!

Stay … wonky!
Jonathan Zucker & Michele Hornish