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Is Our Primary System Broken?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarah (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): We’re still more than a year away from the 2022 midterms, but the first phase of the election cycle has already begun: the primaries. Both major parties are beginning to decide which candidates they will place on the ballot come Nov. 2022, and they each face choices. In the GOP, candidates are vying to align themselves with Trump, in personality and policy. On the Democratic side, progressive candidates are challenging more moderate incumbents. There’s conflict all around.

But is this the best way for parties to choose their candidates? Or, is our primary system broken?

Remember, primaries are still a relatively new thing in the U.S.; they didn’t really come about until the late 1890s and early 1990s, and much of the way our presidential primaries work is by accident. So let’s discuss the role of primaries and how they help (or hurt) democracy, and what we can expect the primary 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 our whole party system is broken and the primaries are just a symptom.

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geoffrey.skelley (Geoffrey Skelley, elections analyst): With some caveats about potentially better systems that might exist, I don’t think the primary system is broken.

And yeah, that has a lot to do with the fact that, as Galen says, I’m not sure our primaries are necessarily the root of the problem.

julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): I think the primary system is broken, but not because of ideological extremism. I think our system of democratic responsiveness is broken. Voters are becoming increasingly dissatisfied and drawn to anti-system alternatives because their needs are not being met.

sarah: Ooh disagreement, good!

OK, now that we know everyone’s starting point, let’s talk a little bit about why primaries were founded in the first place, or why it is that we have the system we do. Any takers?

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galen: We did a whole audio documentary series on this so I’m happy to take a shot at it.

Essentially, our current primary system is the product of happenstance. The party apparatus itself used to be overwhelmingly in charge of choosing presidential nominees. But starting with the Progressive Era in the early 20th century, rank-and-file voters got more input — albeit, more of a suggestion than actually choosing the nominees. Nominees were still chosen at state and national party meetings by party insiders who represented various interests like unions or the elite or what have you, as opposed to by voters at the ballot box.

This changed after a disastrous Democratic nominating convention in 1968 that resulted in violence in Chicago. Democratic activists demanded reforms and those followed, in relatively short order, creating the system we have today. Under this system, delegates to state or national conventions are meant to nominate candidates that voters have chosen in transparent primary contests that are held within the same calendar year as the general election. But the system we have today is still very much a patchwork of different rules by state.

geoffrey.skelley: Right, prior to the widespread adoption of primaries by the early 20th century, most party nominations were decided by variants of a caucus-convention system. But people became frustrated with — let me know if this sounds familiar — elites manipulating the process. 

sarah: Those damn party elites; need ’em but also love to hate ’em.

julia_azari: You sometimes see nostalgia in political science communities for a “smoke-filled room” to pick candidates and I’m really not in that camp. That ship has sailed, and it decidedly wasn’t that great. It’s the patchwork and guesswork of the contemporary primary that I object to.

galen: I will agree and disagree with Julia. The proverbial smoke-filled rooms work, but they can only really be responsive to the public if there is opportunity for new parties to be born and die like there is in other democracies, and that just isn’t the case in the U.S.

julia_azari: I also want to emphasize that the movement this came out of — Progressivism — had some serious problems, like ignoring and sometimes participating in racist practices.  

But the push for the primary system also wasn’t just about abstract principles of good government; there were also OTHER party elites who saw primaries as a way to gain power, so this isn’t a cut and dried story of elites vs. masses. It never is.

galen: In many states, primaries were ushered in by activists who wanted a specific outcome that they weren’t getting.

julia_azari: Right, exactly. And the role activists played sorta gets lost in the discussion.

galen: For instance, in the case of 1968 Democratic nominating convention, the thing party activists weren’t getting was a suitably antiwar candidate, for those interested in the history. And basically, party activists demanded changes, got them, and have played a big role in the system ever since.

geoffrey.skelley: The 1968 convention also gets to Julia’s point about democratic responsiveness. Hubert Humphrey didn’t run in a single primary and yet won the Democratic nomination. So there were definitely demands among activists to prevent that from happening again. 

julia_azari: I still think there’s a role, though, for indirect democracy in our primaries as long as there is representation and coordination. This was my big concern in the 2020 Democratic primary — there was so much emphasis on “defeating” the other side (centrists vs. leftists?), which struck me as at odds with coming up with a ticket that could actually reflect the party more broadly.

Additionally, one of the key things following 1968 and the reforms that came after, is that both parties got better at representation — more women, people of color, younger voters. The Democratic Party still has some of these rules for delegates at the national convention (the Republican National Committee and some state parties also have some gender parity rules). 

galen: Although perhaps some irony here, Julia, is that studies of party-controlled primaries in other countries have shown that, at least in the case of representation of women, party conventions produce more parity.

sarah: So, in other words, what I’m hearing is that it’s kind of a misnomer to argue that primaries were ushered in, in part, to help make elections fairer/more transparent?

geoffrey.skelley: Well, they were in part — they certainly seem more small-d “democratic” than other methods of choosing nominees. Progressive reformers believed primaries would be harder for party elites to control compared to caucuses and conventions, where they might manipulate rules or buy support in some way to help their preferred candidate.

But popular politicians still felt they might benefit politically from primaries, too, so self-interest also played a role in their development. Take presidential primaries, which first took place in 1912 when former president Theodore Roosevelt challenged President William Taft for the GOP nomination. Roosevelt pushed for primaries by arguing 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 adopted because party insiders would back Taft — and that’s what ultimately happened. Despite Roosevelt’s many primary victories, Taft narrowly won renomination, which, in turn, prompted Roosevelt to walk out of the Republican National Convention and run as a third-party candidate. 

galen: Transparency and fairness were the rationale. And in some ways primaries achieved that; in other ways they didn’t, just like having people vote doesn’t always produce consensus outcomes. The design of the voting process matters, and the primaries are not designed well.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the U.S. is very unique in its primary process. Basically no other country has primaries as open as we do. Most countries leave it up to the parties to decide who they want to run in general elections.

julia_azari: Right. I don’t think we can downplay the strategic considerations that went into the development of the primary process. Different kinds of candidates and factions thought they could benefit from having a different kind of process that empowered voters rather than conventions. Some defenders of the current system also argue that the way voters are involved can be a benefit to parties and the process as a whole; primaries require candidates to show they can be competitive in different kinds of electorates. 

For instance, take Barack Obama’s success in winning over white voters in the 2008 Iowa caucuses. Or John F. Kennedy showing that as a Catholic he could still appeal to a Protestant electorate in West Virginia. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these examples are both about identity, but it’s also about the primary system helping show general appeal and prowess as a candidate.

sarah: OK, so as is often the case in American history, it sounds as if one reason we’re debating the American primary system is because it’s always remained a little adhoc in how it’s operated, which creates opportunities for abuse and misuse? Yes?

The reason I’m asking is because there’s an argument that seems to be growing in popularity that says primaries are for partisans, or core Democratic and Republican voters — who are different from the general electorate — and primary voters’ preferences may be making our politics worse,

This gets at what I think Galen was hitting at the outset of the chat: Are primaries the problem or a symptom of the problem, with the problem being how polarized American politics has become

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galen: I have so many thoughts right now. And my keyboard is broken.

julia_azari: As do I Galen, as I have some issues with that piece from the Atlantic, but luckily my keyboard isn’t broken.

First, it’s just not clear that primaries are a key source of polarization — rather than a reflection of it. Second, there’s some disagreement among political scientists about whether primary voters are more extreme than other voters (I would argue that the consensus has generally shown that they are not), but evidence also shows that primary voters are pretty nuanced/sophisticated. They care about electability. They can be convinced to vote for moderates. And putting voters aside for a moment, it’s far from a consensus that primaries actually contribute to polarization. Third, other research suggests that parties still have a lot of influence in Congressional primaries, and maybe even in presidential primaries, Trump notwithstanding.

OK, I’m done monologuing now.

geoffrey.skelley: That first point, Julia, is really important. Polarization in Congress actually went down as the use of primaries skyrocketed in the early 20th century. And yet polarization then increased again while primaries continued to be in use almost everywhere.

So connecting primaries as a cause of polarization is just really problematic. In fact, recent studies have suggested primaries may not even be exacerbating polarization. That may sound surprising, but there isn’t a ton of evidence that more extreme candidates are more likely to win primaries. We just tend to focus on those who do.

julia_azari: Right, Geoffrey. I also think we just don’t have a good handle on what we mean by ideology sometimes. The 2014 House election in the Virginia 7th Congressional District is a good example of this. When David Brat defeated Eric Cantor in 2014, it was heralded as a sign of what was to come in the Republican Party. And to some extent it was, but the ideological story is not so simple. Cantor was very conservative! And while there is evidence that GOP lawmakers are getting more conservative, what we’ve really seen is not this giant lurch to the right, but more so an adoption and embrace of an anti-establishment brand, as that was sort of the point with a lot of these Tea Party candidates. That hasn’t exactly been great for governance, but it’s not the same thing as polarization or moving to the ideological extremes. (Additionally, that district is now represented by a moderate Democrat.)

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galen: So I think there are two responses to criticisms of the current design of our primary system (and to be clear, it is poorly, and inadvertently designed). 

One is to make primaries more like a general election in which more people vote so it’s not just highly partisan people voting. The other is to revert primaries to proverbial smoke-filled rooms in which party insiders choose who runs in the general.

This piece Sarah shared argues for the former. The potential problem there is that we aren’t sure primaries are driving polarization as Julia and Geoffrey have mentioned. But even if, say, primaries do drive polarization because they attract a small electorate, making them more open isn’t a surefire way to increase participation. They could just as well remain low turnout affairs that attract highly ideological voters. And even if more open primaries do increase turnout, that expanded electorate won’t necessarily prioritize the things that parties usually care about in selecting nominees — like policy and the long term health of the party. 

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, higher turnout in primaries isn’t a magic solution to nominate more moderate candidates. For instance, Shigeo Hirano at Columbia University and James M. Snyder Jr. at Harvard University noted in their book on primary elections that while primary electorates became somewhat more moderate as turnout went up, there was no relationship between turnout and how ideologically extreme a nominee was in House races from 1992 to 2014.

galen: In some ways the argument espoused in the Atlantic does seem to fit a period of time when party affiliation is declining and the parties are relatively weak. Why not put less emphasis on the parties? 

The problem is parties do have a role to play in democracy because rank-and-file voters often know very little about policy or candidates, etc., and parties add structure and meaning. But obviously, that can all get out of hand too. 

Arguably one of the biggest problems with going back to smoke-filled rooms at this point is that the parties are pretty weak and those smoke-filled rooms themselves would be controlled by ideologues and activists and people who may not care about the long term health of the party or maybe worse, the long term health of democracy.

sarah: That hits on a point I was thinking about Galen. There has been a recent rise in the number of Americans who identify politically as independent. We know that when push comes to shove most Americans still vote as partisans, but could this mean that more Americans are left out of the primary process now

julia_azari: I mean, I’m a little skeptical because nearly half of all states have open primary elections.

galen: As Julia says, the trend for open primaries (meaning you don’t have to be registered with a party to vote in the primary) is the norm in a lot of states, so I think the question is, do open primaries create a less partisan/polarized environment? Maybe … but they can also open the door to more people running against the party itself and basically running as demagogues who don’t care about policy.

geoffrey.skelley: And a fair number of states have semi-closed primaries, whereby independents can still choose to vote in one party’s primary. Only 11 states have fully closed primaries that prevent anyone outside the party from voting in a party primary.

But again, open primaries aren’t a magical pixie dust for polarization. You can still get extreme candidates in high-turnout open primaries, too.

julia_azari: Right, to use Wisconsin (where I live), as an example. Our primaries are pretty much as open as you can get. You don’t have to ask for a Republican or Democratic ballot  — you choose which party’s race you want to vote in in the privacy of the voting booth. 

But our Senate delegation isn’t exactly unpolarized, and we’ve been at the epicenter of some very nasty, polarized politics. People think competition in our elections makes people compromise, but it can also just provide an incentive to differentiate and take down the other side.

geoffrey: Ah, the alternatives conversation. 

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sarah: It’s time for it. OK, you seem to all agree that primaries aren’t the root cause of polarization, but what, if any, reforms to the primary system would help with some of the polarization in our politics, even if primaries themselves aren’t the root cause? 

galen: The idea of open primaries, in which all candidates run on the same ballot and you use ranked choice voting to narrow is an interesting reform. It gets you closer to a consensus, but obviously, it may weaken the parties faster, which again, is not necessarily all that good even if you don’t like the current political state of affairs.

Because even in the Wisconsin example, you are still ultimately activating people to be partisans in the primary, because there are two different ballots. That is, Republicans and Democrats aren’t competing in the primary, but if they did compete,  things might be different.

julia_azari: But what is the point of a primary at that point?

geoffrey.skelley: Yeah, I’m not so sure about that, Galen. Top-two primary systems like in California and Washington haven’t necessarily produced more moderate members in the state legislatures.

Now, we don’t exactly have a long history with those, so that limits how much we can say about them. But I don’t think they’re some panacea either. Moreover, they can produce clearly problematic outcomes when two candidates from the same party advance in a district that on paper would be competitive in a general election.

julia_azari: I don’t really know what this translates into systems-wise, but my perspective on this is that a new system shouldn’t be focused on candidates or on achieving “moderation” or any other particular result. Instead reforms should be focused on voters and what they want and are not getting.

galen: That’s a really good point, Julia. 

If you try to redesign a democratic system just looking for a specific result in the near term, you are likely going to create 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 U.K.’s experience with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. It was designed to establish regularly scheduled general elections every five years, instead of allowing the prime minister to call elections as they wish. But instead of creating a more equitable election system, the act is now criticized for having created parliamentary paralysis and is under consideration to be repealed after just 10 years in place.

geoffrey.skelley: In a vacuum, I think ranked-choice voting is good in the sense that voters can make choices that will lead to more consensus-driven outcomes. You have to get majority support to win at some point. However, ranked-choice voting can involve longer, more complicated ballots, which could cause fewer voters to complete their ballots and discourage turnout.

galen: Guys what’s the answer here? The current system isn’t great. We’ve said a lot of the reforms aren’t either. I’m stuck. 

julia_azari: Yeah. I’ve been reading open-ended survey responses for some research and, admittedly, these are the folks who are angry enough to write something, but it seems like the issue is that people aren’t really getting represented and feel like there’s a ruling class. 

You could argue that polarization prevents better public policy from being passed, but it seems just as likely that “moderates” in governing positions would do a lot to preserve the status quo.

And now that someone’s asked about solutions, I’ve gone silent…

geoffrey.skelley: So as with most things, there are tradeoffs. And considering that “the moderate middle” is a myth when it comes to voters, I don’t know that ranked-choice voting is going to bring about more consensus-oriented results. 

Maybe candidates are pushed to campaign that way, but in terms of the payoff, it may be too soon to tell with only a few places using such systems.

julia_azari: Primaries are not necessarily the biggest problem we have either in a country where there is a growing anti-democratic movement.

galen: So basically, I think my takeaway is that making democracy well-designed and getting people to be less angry/partisan/polarized are two different things. 

And they are very often conflated in our current environment.

sarah: Yeah, I was going to say, it seems as if there was actually quite a bit of consensus system in this chat — the primary system could be improved (less consensus here on what reforms would work best; more experiments in democracy, please), and no, it’s not because of the primary system that we’re polarized.

julia_azari: If only all Americans could have a slack chat, they’d find their common ground!

I do think Galen and I disagree a bit about smoke-filled rooms, though.

geoffrey.skelley: There’s also some disagreement regarding whether the current system is worth preserving, but I think that yeah, there’s agreement that it’s minor compared to the larger forces driving polarization.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Galen Druke is FiveThirtyEight’s podcast producer and reporter.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Julia Azari is an associate professor of political science at Marquette University. Her research interests include the American presidency, political parties and political rhetoric. She is the author of “Delivering the People’s Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate.”