Are Primaries the Problem? Understanding Polarization and Election Reform

Three blue donkeys occupying all three spots on a podium that is labelled with the numbers 1, 2 and 3, mounted on a piece of graph paper with various data points

Is our understanding of primaries in the United States actually accurate? Conventional wisdom says primaries are low turnout elections where only the most politically engaged and ideologically extreme voters turn out. As a result, both parties tend to select more extreme candidates to head to the general election. But, is there more to consider?

In today’s Data Dive, we’re examining a report that reviews recent scholarship on primary elections and the different reform options. In New America’s report “What We Know about Congressional Primaries and Congressional Primary Reform,” political scientist Lee Drutman synthesizes recent studies and clarifies these assumptions. We spoke to Drutman to further dive into the implications of electoral reform in our current polarized country.

Here are the key takeaways. 

American primaries are unique. Their history shows why. 

Until the early 1900s, political parties were exclusive groups that handpicked candidates. As the country and competing interests grew, states began to adopt the “direct primary” where voters select candidates. Reformers hoped this would transform American voters into an enlightened and engaged electorate. In reality, political parties became uniquely candidate-centered and the same forces of power and money that corrupted pre-Progressive Era politics simply shifted their focus onto the masses. 

“By allowing voters to choose who the candidate should be rather than having party committees that choose candidates, there’s no real vetting mechanism for candidates,” Drutman explained to Democracy Docket. “We are the only democracy in which political parties hand over their responsibility of selecting and vetting candidates entirely to voters.”

Contrary to traditional wisdom, primaries aren’t actually the biggest motivators of partisan polarization. 

Over the past two decades, the number of competitive districts across the country has been cut in half and the number of safe districts has steadily increased. In safe districts, general elections are often basically uncontested, making primary elections more important. This is an intuitive conclusion since the candidate who wins the primary in a solid blue or red district is likely to win the general election.

“In effect, the only opportunity for democracy in our elections is during primary elections,” added Drutman. We are in the midst of another redistricting cycle where we’ve seen lawmakers prioritize incumbent protection when drawing districts. However, it’s not just gerrymandering that leads to this outcome — the natural geographic sorting of voters has accelerated in recent years. 

As a result, incumbent members of Congress are highly concerned by primary challenges, which usually come from the poles of the parties. Incumbents adjust their behavior based on what they assume will deter an intraparty challenge, namely rejecting compromise with the opposing party and maintaining close ties to primary constituent groups.

But, is there something unique about primary voters? Not really. In one study, researchers scored voters on a “symbolic ideology” scale that goes from -2 (most liberal) to 2 (most conservative). Republican primary voters were only ~0.2 points more conservative than their general election counterparts, while Democratic primary voters were only ~0.1 more liberal. 

However, the idea of an “extreme” primary voter often conflates the concepts of ideology and partisanship; according to the report, it is more common for voters to have strong partisan attachments than to have strong ideological beliefs on policy issues. Either way, whatever small difference exists between primary and general election voters is far overshadowed by the wide gulf between the two parties. 

Consequently, not all primary reforms are created equal. 

Across the 50 states, there are now seven types of congressional primaries. For full details, refer to the report. Here are a few types:

  • Closed: Voters must be registered members of the party.
  • Open: Voters are free to vote in either primary. Some states require public disclosure, others don’t. In some states, this is only an option for unaffiliated voters.
  • Nonpartisan Top Two or Top Four: All candidates compete in a single primary, the top two (or four) advance to the general election regardless of party.

With these seven primary types in mind, Drutman looked at whether the primary type generated any meaningful difference in election results. First, the biggest myth about primary reform that Drutman wanted to dispel is “the idea that if you had open primaries where independents could vote, there would be some significant difference on who got elected or how candidates behaved — that is not at all supported by the evidence,” he emphasized. To summarize, there’s no indication that if registered Independents could partake in either a Democratic or Republican primary (open primary), these Independent voters would moderate the outcome.

The congressional data from the past decade has not revealed that primary type, whether open or nonpartisan top-two, impacts who votes or runs in these primaries. In fact, when examining states with top-two primaries (notably, California), the data has yet to show that these races generate more moderate winners.

In contrast, nonpartisan top-four or top-five primaries look promising. Alaska will be the first state to implement a top-four system this year. In this specific type of primary, since so many candidates can advance to the general election, it lowers the stakes for the primary. Logically, with more than one candidate per party on a given ticket, there’s an incentive for candidates to distinguish themselves based on policy instead of being the “lesser of two evils.” 

Additionally, the nonpartisan approach of top-four and top-five primaries creates a new challenge: “You wind up with a lot of confusion among voters,” Drutman explained. “Most voters don’t follow politics closely. It’s not clear to voters who the moderate is, who the extremist is, as people mostly vote on a partisan level.” 

“I certainly think [Alaska’s top-four primary] is better than the status quo,” added Drutman. “But I don’t see it as particularly transformative.”

So, what is transformative? Drutman suggests overhauling the two-party system. 

“I think the broader point is that we’re not going to fix this problem of polarization with the same set of institutions that created it,” Drutman emphasized, instead offering his preferred solution: ending the two-party system. 

Drutman covers this option in his book, “Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop: The Case for Multiparty Democracy in America,” and provided an overview of a few key aspects. First, he suggests implementing proportional representation in multi-member districts for better representation for voters and to encourage more than two parties. Second, Drutman proposes combining those reforms with ranked-choice voting. And third, he recommends increasing the size of the U.S. House of Representatives, to make it easier to implement multi-member districts. “It’s something that it is definitely time to do, we haven’t done it in 110 years now. We used to do it every census,” Drutman added. 

“I think a lot of folks don’t appreciate that we need structural changes to make it possible,” Drutman continued. “And that it’s not just a matter of a third party, but it’s a matter of five or six parties. Because there’s no third party that would be more popular than either Democrats or the Republicans right now.”

We can’t overlook the long-term impact on democracy for the sake of short-term priorities. 

Activists and lawmakers across the country are fighting for the bare minimum when it comes to voting access and democratic norms, pushing back against voter suppression laws and the Republican party’s embrace of election subversion. It’s no wonder that enacting primary reform, as well as the larger structural changes described above, have been pushed to the back burner.

However, Drutman emphasizes the importance of thinking long-term about the health of our democracy. “I don’t see how democracy can depend on Democrats winning elections. We don’t really have a democracy anymore if only one party is legitimate, and that’s a fundamental failure of democracy,” Drutman explained. “It feels like we need to fundamentally rethink the whole game that we’re playing.”

Democracy reform, whether tackling primaries or the much deeper two-party polarization, can’t be left behind for the sake of focusing on the next election. Instead, he argues:  “We need a moment of big transformation.”