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Changing How Primaries Work Probably Won’t Make Politics Less Divisive

Republican candidates around the country are trying to win over former President Donald Trump’s supporters before the 2022 midterm elections, so it’s no surprise that many are choosing to go all in on the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him. The idea is that by embracing this lie, they might boost their electoral chances; it’s one reason many GOP lawmakers haven’t disputed this falsehood.1

This extreme jockeying would seem to support the argument that our primary elections greatly contribute to the increased polarization and conflict we see in our politics. Yet, as a report from the think tank New America by FiveThirtyEight contributor Lee Drutman details, primaries are not really a major catalyst for why Congress is so polarized — thus, changing how primaries work may not actually do that much to fix the problem. 

Incumbent politicians have moved further toward the political extremes in recent elections partly because they are worried about a primary challenge. But studies suggest that the primary electorate itself isn’t any more ideologically extreme than the general electorate. Rather, the bigger problem is the decline in competitive congressional districts. Only about 1 in 6 congressional districts were “swingy” in the 2020 general election, compared with roughly 2 in 5 in 2000.

The rapid decline in competitive elections isn’t because of our primary system, though. It’s due mainly to partisan sorting, whereby Democratic areas are becoming more Democratic and Republican areas more Republican — either because people are changing their attitudes to better match their party or they’re moving to areas where their preferences are already dominant. 

The upshot, of course, is that with fewer competitive districts, a primary is often more important than the general election, as it’s in this stage that the eventual winner is selected. That’s one big reason why incumbents fear a primary challenge even though few incumbents lose primaries — it’s the primary that increasingly matters for electoral survival.


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Yet the argument that primaries generate more polarization doesn’t necessarily hold true, as studies don’t clearly show primary voters as being more extreme than those who vote only in the general election. That is, the average Democrat voting in a primary may not be much more liberal than the average Democrat who votes only in November; the same premise goes for Republicans. 

This lack of an obvious ideological gap between primary and general election voters helps explain why reforms aimed at broadening the primary electorate haven’t produced meaningful results. Reformers argue that a more open primary system — such as an open primary, in which no party registration is required, or a top-two primary, where all candidates run regardless of party and the top-two vote-getters advance — will produce a more moderate electorate and more moderate candidates. However, neither has really happened. 

An orange background with a cartoon head. The head has a word bubble which reads “The strategy seems to either be run left or run right — depending on which party’s primary you’re running in.”

related: The Senate Primary Races We’re Watching So Far Read more. »

Studies suggest that changing the primary system from a closed system, where only party registrants can vote, to an open primary or a top-two primary doesn’t really alter the makeup of the primary electorate. In fact, the electorate in more open primaries may be slightly more extreme. (This probably shouldn’t surprise us, though, considering that most independents vote similarly to openly partisan voters and that moderates often hold idiosyncratic and sometimes extreme views.)

Moreover, more open primary systems haven’t attracted more middle-of-the-road candidates — or gotten them elected. Multiple studies find little or no evidence that more open primary systems attract more moderate candidates to run or to win more often. Tellingly, in his study, Drutman examined the average ideological position of House members over the past five congresses based on the type of primary used to nominate them and found little difference by primary type for either party. Rather, ideology was much more aligned with how red or blue the district was.

That said, there is a new primary system — Alaska’s top-four primary — that could pay dividends in a way the others have not. In 2022, candidates from all parties will run in a primary, and the top-four vote-getters will advance to the general election, where voters will use ranked-choice voting to decide the winner. In theory, such a system could reduce incumbents’ concerns about getting “primaried” because, with high name recognition and bountiful resources, they’re more likely to reach the general election if four candidates, rather than just one or two, advance.

However, the top-four primary could still suffer from some of the same problems that have afflicted the top-two primary in the two states that currently use it, California and Washington. Namely, a top-two primary in a deep blue or red district sometimes sends two candidates from the dominant party to the general election. In that situation, reformers expected voters from the other party to support the more moderate contender, but that hasn’t really panned out. Instead, voters from the other party often don’t bother voting because they may struggle to differentiate between the candidates from the dominant party. In other words, a Democrat may see two Republican candidates as being two sides of the same coin and choose to abstain; similarly, a Republican may have the same reaction when two Democrats are on the ballot. 

We may see a similar problem arise in a top-four system’s general election, whereby voters may have to rank two or more candidates from the opposing party. This may not be a big problem in a high-profile race like Alaska’s 2022 Senate contest because voters will be more informed about that race. But in a race getting comparably less attention — like a House election in a state with many districts (if such a state implemented this system) — it’s less likely that voters in a random district would be able to easily discriminate between who is more moderate among the other party’s candidates.

Even in a high-profile contest like Alaska’s 2022 Senate race, the top-four system won’t necessarily help an incumbent like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has actively defied Trump in a state he won by 10 points in 2020. While other major contenders could still enter the race and Murkowski hasn’t officially announced her reelection bid, it looks increasingly like she will face one other notable Republican running to her right: former commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Administration Kelly Tshibaka. And Murkowski’s moderation could actually hurt her because it has significantly eroded her standing in the Alaska GOP in what is, remember, a fairly red state. The state party, for instance, has censured her for voting to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial and then endorsed Tshibaka, who also earned Trump’s coveted endorsement. Murkowski is no stranger to hard-fought races, though. After losing renomination in the GOP primary in 2010, she won reelection as a write-in candidate in the general election, thanks to her ability to appeal to broad swaths of the state’s electorate, such as Alaskan Natives and some Democrats. Yet her anti-Trump bona fides could make it more difficult for her to win this time around, as she could struggle to hold on to a significant chunk of the GOP base, which may be necessary to win.

Murkowski should still be able to advance to November in the top-four primary, but she could be in trouble if something like the following scenario plays out in the ranked-choice voting process: In the first-choice vote, Tshibaka wins a majority of Republican voters and Democrats have a high-profile candidate who they largely back instead of Murkowski. In this situation, Murkowski could easily find herself in third place among the first-choice votes. So even if she’s the preferred second-choice candidate for most of the voters who backed the fourth-place candidate, she might still be in third after those votes are reallocated, which would mean game over. In other words, even if Murkowski were the preferred option for the state’s electorate in a head-to-head matchup with Tshibaka, that wouldn’t matter if she never got into a position to find out. So contrary to reformers’ expectations, a top-four primary might not be the ticket to victory for more moderate candidates either.

To be sure, this doesn’t mean primary reforms aren’t worth pursuing. Considering many elections are decided in the primary and not the general election, the top-four is, in a way, more democratic because it gives the larger general electorate more say. It’s just that more open primary systems — even Alaska’s top-four — aren’t likely to do much to diminish polarization. And that’s likely because the biggest driver of polarization is the widening chasm between the two parties. Ultimately, the divide between the parties is a much stronger source of our nation’s increasingly polarized politics than any candidate maneuvering in the primaries — or how the primaries themselves work.


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Footnotes

  1. And, of course, some may also believe it to be true.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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