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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




The Primary Thing 

June 5, 2014 — By Daniel Stid

Our friend and grantee Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution recently offered the telling observation that “congressional primaries are the neglected stepchildren of American elections.” She noted that, for the most part, journalists don’t cover congressional primaries and scholars don’t research them. Most citizens can’t be bothered with them: historically, turnout rates among potential voters hover around 5% in mid-term primary elections. 

Moreover, we know that the voters who do turn out for primaries are much more partisan and ideological than the vast majority who don’t, giving rise to the reasonable conjecture that congressional primary dynamics are linked to polarization. For those of us concerned about the health of Congress, you can see how congressional primaries are a problem.

The dynamics around California’s new “top two” primary election, which was held Tuesday, may help move questions about congressional primaries—how they are structured, which candidates run in them, how they run, and, not least, how voters participate in them—more onto the center stage of American politics.

In the top two system, which was first used in California in 2012, all candidates from all parties standing for a particular office run against each other. Voters can vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof)—either their own or their preferred candidate’s. The two candidates getting the most votes (and only those two) advance to the general election in November.

Can the top two primary reverse or at least alleviate polarization? Last fall, at the height of the government shut down, pundits pointed to California’s primary innovation as a model for the nation. Meanwhile, leading political scientists have found little evidence that the extent to which primaries are open or closed has much to do with polarization, and California should be no exception to this rule.

I think the truth probably lies somewhere in between.  Certainly the dynamics are shifting in some districts. Based on Tuesday’s results, at least seven out of California’s 53 House races will have candidates of the same party running against each other in November. For example, in CA-17, in the heart of Silicon Valley, two Democrats will be facing off, with the liberal incumbent Mike Honda defending his seat against a well-funded centrist challenger, Ro Khanna. To take another example, in CA-4, in the rural central Sierra, the incumbent Tea Party Republican Tom McClintock will have to fend off Art Moore, a West Pointer and Iraq War veteran running as a more moderate (though still conservative) Republican. In each instance, the challenger will be able to appeal not only to his wing of the party but also to the independents and voters from the other party.

I have also been struck by what I have heard in conversations with several California political hands, people running for office, anticipating running, or managing and funding the candidacies of others.  To a person they see the top two primary as a big deal, one that will drive central tendencies in the state’s politics. They haven’t thought much about the idealism of the reformers or the analytical skepticism of the political scientists; they simply recognize that the rules of the game they are playing have shifted and they are preparing new strategies accordingly.

It is also too soon to tell what difference the top two will make. It remains a relatively new electoral institution. We should expect it will take a few electoral cycles for parties and their networks, candidates for office, their advisors and funders, and voters to get the hang of it.

As a grant maker endeavoring to be strategic, it is all too tempting for us to use engineering and mechanical metaphors in assessing systems change—e.g., if this component is adjusted, the machine will begin working in a different way.  We have to keep reminding ourselves that gardening might be a better source of metaphors for how we think about and assess changes in the political system—they need to be seeded, well cared for, and then, depending on weather conditions, may or may not bear fruit. We also need to emulate the gardener’s patience—because none of this happens overnight.