Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The following transcript has been edited slightly.
Sarah (Sarah Frostenson, Politics Editor): We’re still over a year away from midterms 2022, but the first phase of the election cycle has already begun: the primaries. Both major parties are starting to decide which candidates they will put up for election in November 2022, and they face each other. In the GOP, the candidates vie to connect with Trump in personality and politics. On the democratic side, progressive candidates are challenging more moderate incumbents. There is conflict everywhere.
But is that the best way for parties to choose their candidates? Or is our primary system broken?
Notice, Area codes are still relatively new in the USA.; they didn’t come about until the late 1890s and early 90s, and much of the way our presidential primaries work is accidental. So let’s discuss the role of the primaries and how they help (or harm) democracy and what to expect from the primaries season to tell us about the 2022 midterm elections.
First, let’s get a quick temperature of the room. Who thinks our primary system is broken?
galen (Galen Druke, Podcast Producer and Reporter): I think our primary system is broken.
But maybe all of ours party System is broken and the area codes are just a symptom.
geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, Election Analyst): With some caveats about potentially better systems that could exist, I don’t think the primary system is broken.
And yes, that has a lot to do with Galen says I’m not sure our area codes are necessarily the root of the problem.
julia_azari (Julia Azari, Professor of Political Science at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight staff): I think the primary system is broken, but not because of ideological extremism. I think our system of democratic responsiveness is broken. There are more and more voters dissatisfied and attracted to hostile alternatives because of theirs Needs are not met.
Sarah: Ooh disagreement, good!
OK, now that we know the starting point of everyone, let’s talk a little about why primaries were established in the first place, or why we have the system we have. Any customers?
galen: We made an entire audio documentary series about it, so I’m excited to be recording it.
In essence, our current primary system is the product of chance. The election of the presidential candidates used to be largely the party machine itself. But starting with the progressive era in the early 20th century, ordinary voters received more input – albeit more as a proposal than indeed select the nominees. The nominees were still elected at state and federal party assemblies by party insiders who represented various interests such as unions or the elite or whatever, as opposed to the voters at the ballot box.
That all changed after a disastrous Democratic nomination convention in 1968 that led to violence in Chicago. Democratic activists called for reforms and these followed in a relatively short period of time and created the system we have today. Under this system, delegates to federal or national congresses are supposed to nominate candidates who have been elected by voters in transparent pre-election competitions that take place in the same calendar year as the general election. But the system we have today is still a patchwork of different government rules.
geoffrey.skelley: Right, before the widespread introduction of primaries at the beginning of the 20th century, most of the party nominations were decided through variants of a caucus convention system. But people were frustrated – let me know if this sounds familiar to you – that elites were manipulating the process.
Sarah: Those damn party elites; need them, but also like to hate them.
julia_azari: Sometimes one sees in political science communities nostalgia for a “smoky room“Selecting candidates and I’m really not in that camp. This ship sailed and it definitely wasn’t great. It is the patchwork and guesswork of contemporary primary school that I object to.
galen: I will agree and disagree with Julia. The proverbial smoky rooms work, but they can only really respond to the public if there is an opportunity to form new parties and die, as is the case in other democracies, and that is just not the case in the US .
But the pressures on the primary system were not just about abstract principles of good government; There were OTHER party elites who saw primaries as a way of gaining power, so this is not a hackneyed story of elites versus masses. It never is.
galen: In many states Primary elections were started by activists who wanted a certain outcome that they didn’t get.
julia_azari: Exactly right. And the role that activists played is somehow lost in the discussion.
galen: In the case of the 1968 Democratic nomination convention, for example, party activists did not get a suitable antiwar candidate for those interested in the story. And basically, party activists called for change, got them, and have played a huge role in the system ever since.
geoffrey.skelley: The 1968 Convention also sums up Julia’s point about democratic responsiveness. Hubert Humphrey didn’t run in a single primary and still won the Democratic nomination. So there were definitely calls among activists to prevent this from happening again.
julia_azari: However, I think that indirect democracy will still play a role in our primaries as long as it is represented and coordinated. This was my major concern with the 2020 Democratic primary – there was so much emphasis on “defeating” the other side (centrists vs. left?) That it struck me as contradicting developing a ticket that actually made the party more could reflect broadly.
Furthermore, one of the most important things after 1968 and the reforms that followed is that both parties are better represented – more women, colored people, younger voters. The Democratic Party still has some of them Rules for delegates at the National Convention (the Republican National Committee and some States Parties also have some rules about gender parity).
galen: Though it may be ironic here, Julia, is it? Studies on party-controlled primaries in other countries have shown that party congresses lead to more parity, at least when it comes to the representation of women.
Sarah: In other words, what I am hearing is that it is kind of a misnomer to argue that primaries were partly launched to make elections fairer / more transparent?
geoffrey.skelley: Well, in part they were – they certainly seem more “democratic” than other methods of selecting nominees. Progressive reformers believed that primaries were harder for the party elite to control than gatherings and conventions at which they could manipulate rules or in some way buy support to help their preferred candidate.
But popular politicians still believed that they could also benefit politically from primaries, so self-interest also played a role in their development. Take the presidential primaries, first held in 1912 when former President Theodore Roosevelt challenged President William Taft for the GOP nomination. Roosevelt pushed for primaries arguing that the party should “let the people rule”, which played into progressive sentiments at the time. But Roosevelt also knew he would have a hard time winning if primaries weren’t passed because party insiders would support Taft – and that’s what ultimately happened. Despite Roosevelt’s many first wins, Taft only narrowly won the renomination, which in turn got Roosevelt to go out of the Republican National Convention and running as a third party candidate.
galen: Transparency and fairness were the reasons. And in a way, primaries did that; otherwise they didn’t, just as it doesn’t always lead to consensus outcomes when people vote. The design of the voting process is important, and the primaries are not well designed.
It is also worth noting that the US is very unique in its primary process. In principle, no other country has such open primaries as we do. Most countries leave it to the parties to decide who to run in the parliamentary elections.
julia_azari: Law. I don’t think we can downplay the strategic considerations that went into developing the primary process. Different types of candidates and political groups thought they might benefit from some other process that gives voters more power than convention. Some defenders of the current system also argue that voter participation can be beneficial to parties and the process as a whole; Primaries require candidates to be competitive in different constituencies.
Take, for example, Barack Obama’s success in attracting white voters in the 2008 Iowa election, or John F. Kennedy, who showed that as a Catholic he could still appeal to a Protestant electorate in West Virginia. I think it is no coincidence that these examples are both about identity but also about the primary system that helps show general appeal and skills as a candidate.
Sarah: OK, like so often in American history, it sounds like one reason we’re debating the American primary system is because it has always been a little adhoc in how it works, creating opportunities for abuse and abuse? Yes?
The reason I am asking is that there is an argument that seems to be growing in popularity that goes: Primaries are for partisans, or Democratic and Republican core voters – who are different from the general electorate – and the preferences of the main voters can worsen our policies,
This depends on what I think Galen addressed at the beginning of the chat: are primaries the problem or a symptom of the problem, where the problem is how polarized American politics has become?
galen: I have so many thoughts right now. And my keyboard is broken.
julia_azari: As did I Galen, as I have some problems with this piece from the Atlantic, but luckily my keyboard is not broken.
First, it’s just not clear that primaries are a major source of polarization – and not a reflection of it. Second, there are some disagreement under Political scientist about whether primary voters more extreme than other voters (I would argue that the consensus has generally shown that it is not) but there is also evidence that primary voters are quite nuanced / experienced. you Concern about eligibility. You can be convinced Vote for moderates. And if you leave the voters aside for a moment, it’s far from a consensus that that Primaries indeed contribute to polarization. Third, other research suggests that Parties still have a lot of influence in the congressional primaries and maybe even in Presidential primaries, Trump notwithstanding.
OK, I’m done with the monologue now.
geoffrey.skelley: That first point, Julia, is really important. Polarization in Congress actually went Low as the use of primaries skyrocketed in the early 20th century. And yet the polarization then increased again, while primaries were still in use almost everywhere.
So connecting area codes as the cause of polarization is just really problematic. In fact, recent studies have suggested that Primaries can’t even worsen polarization. This may sound surprising, but there isn’t much evidence that more extreme candidates are more likely to win primaries. We just tend to focus on those who are doing it.
julia_azari: Right, Geoffrey. I also think that sometimes we just don’t really have a grip on what we mean by ideology. The 2014 general election in the 7th Congressional District of Virginia is a good example of this. When David Brat defeated Eric Cantor in 2014, it was heralded as a sign for the Republican Party. And to a certain extent it was, but the ideological story is not that simple. Cantor was very conservative! And while there is evidence that GOP lawmakers are becoming more conservative, in reality we haven’t seen this huge shift to the right, but rather the adoption and adoption of an anti-establishment brand as that was the point of many of these tea party candidates . That wasn’t exactly good for governance, but it’s not the same as polarization or moving to ideological extremes. (Also, this district is now represented by a moderate Democrat.)
galen: So I think there are two answers to the criticism of the current design of our primary system (and to be clear: it is bad and accidentally constructed).
One is to make the primaries more like a general election, with more people voting, so that not only very partisan people vote. The other is to convert primaries into literally smoky rooms where party insiders decide who runs in the general.
This piece, which Sarah shared, argues for the former. The potential problem is that we’re not sure if primaries are driving polarization, as Julia and Geoffrey mentioned. But even if, say, primaries are driving polarization because they attract a small electorate, their openness is not a surefire way to increase participation. It might as well remain a low turnout affair that attracts heavily ideological voters. And even if more open primaries increase voter turnout, that expanded electorate won’t necessarily prioritize the things that parties typically care about when selecting candidates – like party’s politics and long-term health.
geoffrey.skelley: Yes, higher voter turnout in primaries is not a magical solution to nominating more moderate candidates. For example, Shigeo Hirano of Columbia University and James M. Snyder Jr. of Harvard University noted in her book on primaries that the primary elections became somewhat more moderate with increasing voter turnout, but there was no connection between the voter turnout and the ideological extremity of a candidate in the parliamentary elections from 1992 to 2014.
galen: In a way, the argument put forward in the Atlantic seems to fit into a period when party membership is declining and the parties are relatively weak. Why not put less emphasis on the parties?
The problem is that parties play a role in democracy because ordinary voters often know very little about politics or candidates, etc., and parties add structure and meaning. But of course it can all get out of hand.
At this point in time, arguably one of the biggest problems with going back to smoky rooms is that the parties are pretty weak and these smoky rooms are controlled by ideologues and activists and people who believe the long-term health of the party, or perhaps worse, the long-term Health of democracy.
Sarah: This hits a point that I thought of Galen. Recently, the number of Americans who identify politically as independent has increased. We know that when the going gets tough, most Americans still vote as partisans, but could that mean more Americans? are now excluded from the primary process?
julia_azari: I mean, I’m a little skeptical because almost half of all states have this open primaries.
galen: As Julia says, the trend towards open primaries (i.e. you don’t have to be registered with a party to vote in the primaries) is the norm in many states, so I think the question is, do open primaries do less? partisan / polarized environment? Maybe … but they can also open the door to more people who stand up against the party itself and basically act as demagogues who don’t care about politics.
geoffrey.skelley: And a number of states have semi-closed primaries where independents can still choose to vote in a party’s primary. Only 11 states have fully closed area codes that prevent anyone outside the party from voting on a party area code.
But here, too, open primaries are no magic fairy dust for polarization. You can still get extreme candidates even in high-turnout open primaries.
julia_azari: Right, to take Wisconsin (where I live) as an example. Our primaries are as open as possible. No need to ask for a Republican or Democratic ballot – you choose which party to vote for in the privacy of the voting booth.
But our Senate delegation is not exactly unpolarized, and we have was at the epicenter from a few very angry, polarized politics. People think that competition compromises our choices, but it can also just provide an incentive to differentiate and beat the other side.
geoffrey: Ah, the alternative conversation.
Sarah: It is time for that. OK, they all seem to agree that primaries are not the main cause of polarization, but what, if any, primary system reforms would help with some of the polarization in our politics, even if primaries themselves aren’t the main cause? ?
galen: The idea of open primaries, where all candidates run on the same ballot and you use ranked voting to narrow down, is an interesting reform. It brings you closer to consensus, but obviously it can weaken the parties faster, which again is not necessarily a good thing, even if you don’t like the current political situation.
Because yourself In the Wisconsin example, you still end up enabling people to be partisans in the area code because there are two different ballots. That said, Republicans and Democrats don’t compete in the primary, but if they do compete, things might be different.
julia_azari: But what’s the point of a primary school at this point?
geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I’m not so sure about that, Galen. The two most important primary systems like those in California and Washington don’t necessarily have to be produced more moderate members in the state parliaments.
Well, we don’t exactly have a long history with these, so that limits how much we can say about them. But I don’t think they’re a panacea either. In addition, they can lead to clearly problematic results when two candidates from the same party advance in a district that would be competitive on paper in a general election.
julia_azari: I don’t really know what that means in systems terms, but my perspective on this is that a new system should not be geared towards candidates or towards achieving “moderation” or any other particular outcome. Instead, reform should focus on voters and what they want and what they don’t.
galen: That’s a really good point, Julia.
If you try to remodel a democratic system just for the short term to get a certain result, you will likely have knock-on effects that you don’t want, and it may not even reflect overarching democratic goals / norms. A good example of this is the UK experience with the Temporary Parliaments Act. It should regularly introduce general elections every five years instead of allowing the Prime Minister to call elections at will. But instead of creating a fairer electoral system, the law is there now criticized for parliamentary paralysis and is considering canceled after only 10 years.
geoffrey.skelley: In a vacuum, I find that ranked voting is good in that voters can make decisions that lead to consensus-based results. At some point you have to have the majority to win. However, a leaderboard vote may involve longer, more complicated votes that may be cause fewer voters to fill out their ballot papers and Discouragement of voter turnout.
galen: Folks, what’s the answer here? The current system is not that great. We said many of the reforms are not either. I am stuck.
julia_azari: Yes. I’ve read open poll responses for some research and admittedly these are the people who are angry enough to write something, but the problem seems to be that people are not really represented and they feel like there is a class of judgment .
One could argue that polarization is preventing better public policies from being adopted, but it seems equally likely that “moderate” government positions would go a long way in maintaining the status quo.
And now that someone has asked for solutions, I fell silent …
geoffrey.skelley: So, as with most things, there is compromise. And considering that “the moderate middle” is a myth when it comes to voters, I don’t know that ranked voting will lead to consensus-based results.
Perhaps this way candidates will be pushed into a campaign, but in terms of payout, it may be too early to say as few places use such systems.
julia_azari: Primaries are not necessarily the biggest problem we have in a country where there is a growing anti-democratic movement.
galen: Basically I think that making democracy good and making people less angry / partisan / polarized are two different things.
And they are very often merged in our current environment.
Sarah: Yeah, I was going to say it seems like there’s actually quite a bit of consensus system going on in this chat – the primary system could be improved (less consensus here on which reforms would work best; more experimentation in democracy please), and no, we are not polarized because of the primary system.
julia_azari: If only all Americans could have a casual conversation, they would find common ground!
I believe Galen and I disagree with smoky rooms.
geoffrey.skelley: There is also some disagreement about whether the current system is worth preserving, but I think yes there is consensus that it is small compared to the larger forces driving polarization.