Scholars and practitioners of politics have long argued that primary elections are a major contributing factor to polarization. The argument goes as follows: Because primary elections are (mostly) restricted to voters from one party and (usually) garner low turnout, ideologues in both parties can easily dominate.
While the entire American nomination system is vulnerable to capture by factions within a political party, congressional primaries, especially for the US House of Representatives, are particularly vulnerable. These elections are inexpensive, in most years operate in near total obscurity, and are among the lowest turnout elections in the United States. Thus, they are targets for national ideological groups; they provide a perfect setting for interest groups within a political party to gain and exercise influence out of proportion to their size. (Unlike other democracies around the world, the American nomination system is extraordinarily porous. In most other democracies, the “party list” is compiled centrally and the only way for a candidate to get on the ballot is if she is on that list. In the American system, a candidate need not have any prior experience or relationship with the party. She can simply contest the nomination and win.)
Not all primaries have low turnout. Sometimes turnout is heavy in hotly fought statewide primaries. But even in the highly contested primaries of 2010, turnout averaged just 7.5 percent of the voting age population. And in recent years we’ve seen an increase in the number of extremely safe congressional districts, while the number of “swing” seats (those with competitive races) has decreased. In 2014, there were just 90 such “swing” seats out of 435.
The opportunity for repeated “capture” of one or both political parties by ideological voters (and the subsequent ease with which factions financed by a single billionaire can establish national campaigns) provide a real threat to the smooth functioning of the American democracy. How can we counter this threat?
Returning to a practice from earlier times, when party organizations controlled nominations, is one solution, but doing so really isn’t plausible. Party control over nominations began to erode somewhat in the 20th century, but its death knell was the passage of the Democratic Party’s McGovern-Fraser reforms of the 1970s, which had the effect of dramatically increasing the number of primaries and taking nominations out of the hands of party officials and into the hands of voters. Today the notion that voters would not play the key role in the nomination process is widely viewed as illegitimate, even though their power to do so is relatively recent.
A more fruitful approach would be to look for ways to increase turnout in congressional primaries so they attract a broader pool of voters. But increasing voter turnout isn’t easy either, as many reform advocates have learned.
So what can be done? Start by considering other factors that contribute to low primary turnout. For example, when looking at the big differences between primary and general election turnouts, two simple structural facts stand out: General elections for federal offices take place on one day, whereas primaries take place on many days. The importance of those two facts cannot be underestimated. The average citizen has to work hard to miss the fact that a presidential election is about to take place (and presidential elections, unsurprisingly, have the highest voter turnout), whereas it is difficult to turn congressional primaries into national news stories.
Consider: In 2014, congressional and statewide primaries began in March and ended in September. They were spread out across 15 separate days in seven months. Many took place in the dog days of summer. To a certain extent, that calendar was a creation of incumbents who, confident in their small core of primary voters, liked the fact that very few people would vote. But the same system that protects incumbents most of the time makes them vulnerable to factions within their party that hope to influence policy—if not wrest control from the establishment.
This leads us to one simple and very obvious reform path—encouraging the two major political parties to hold primaries on the same day in every state. If there were one or two national primary days (a different one for each political party), the national press would be able to cover each as a major story.
Like redistricting decisions, most primary dates are set by state law and by state legislatures. Changing primaries to one day would run up against a host of local political calculations but it would also offer political parties the chance to build out their core voter bases. By getting the make-up of primary voters closer, if not identical to, the make-up of the voters in general elections, parties could avoid the situation Republicans have faced in recent years when the Tea Party took over enough Republican primaries in safe districts to get into Congress and exercise a veto over the kinds of negotiations that used to characterize a functioning legislature.
There are two roads to a national primary day (or days). One is congressional—via the establishment of a law that would mandate congressional primaries on one day. This is not likely to happen. Congress has been loath to interfere in the primary process. Numerous bills to create a same-day presidential primary have failed to gain any traction in Congress. In addition, there are potential constitutional issues with this approach.
The other possibility is for the two national political parties to encourage a same-day congressional primary. This is not as far-fetched as one might assume. For a decade now, the two major national political parties, responsible for nominating the presidential candidates, have actually been in conversations over the timing of primaries in the presidential nominating process.
The relationship between primaries and polarization is, at bottom, about the large differences between voters in primary elections and voters in general elections. In order to create real choice in the electoral system, it is important that the primary voting population mirrors general election voters more closely than it does now—and that means increasing turnout. Moving to create a national primary day would not be easy. But it is the one reform that could close the enormous gap in voter turnout and reduce the chances that one or both political parties gets captured by factions that increase polarization and lead to dysfunctional government.