|Are open primaries a fair means of choosing a party's nominee? Louisiana State Law Professor John Baker and University of Iowa Political Science Professor Rebecca Morton answer your questions.|
Arnold of Mansfield, MA, asks:
I like the idea of open primaries because it seems to have the effect of waking up the electorate to vote for the person and not just the party. I believe that in the final analysis it's healthier for the country to have open primaries than closed because I feel the country benefits in the long run by having the opportunity to vote for the person who best represents the center; parties seem to polarize people. Polarized voters don't seem to me to be as conscientious as non-polarized voters. What are the opinions of the professors?
It is definitley true that in more open primaries there is evidence that elections are more candidate-centered than in closed primaries. For example, there are greater numbers of candidates for Congress in states with more open primaries and, importantly, more independent candidates. It is not atypical that Jesse Ventura won election to Minnesota's governorship in an open primary state. Why is this true? In our American electoral system we generally use winner-take-all elections that force voters to form into large diverse electoral coalitions in order to elect candidates. Typically these large coalitions are our two major political parties. The parties use party labels as coordinating devices for voters in general elections. But in more open primary states voters are encouraged to ignore party labels and to cross party lines. Candidates use polls, campaign expenditures, interest group endorsements as ways to coordinate their voter coalitions. Thus the advantage of a party label decreases and elections become more centered on candidate specific identities rather than parties. The effect is an increase in the number of candidates and the number of independent candidates.
That said, it is unclear whether open primaries truly lead to candidates who are more centrist. Many contend that this is the case. The argument is that in more open primaries moderate independent voters and moderates in the other party can "sincerely" crossover and vote for a candidate that they prefer more than the candidates in their own party. Moderate Representative Tom Campbell of California believed that he lost the Republican nomination for the Senate in 1992 primarily because of California's then closed primary system (the more conservative Bruce Hershenshon who won the Republican nomination was defeated by Barbara Boxer). Campbell and others pushed for the change in California's system as a result. There is some empirical evidence that supports Campbell's contention. If we look at members of Congress, for example, those elected from more open primary states are more likely to choose policy positions favored by the voters in the ideological centers in their particular constituencies.
However, the relationship between openness and moderation is not straightforward. For example, open primaries differ in the degree to which voters can "secretly" choose in which party's primary to vote -- in Wisconsin voters are given all the parties' ballots and discard those not used (pure-open), while in Iowa voters must declare which party's primary they are choosing when they vote (semi-open). Members of Congress from pure-open primary states actually have more extreme positions (relative to their electorates) than those in closed primary states! Why can this happen? First, not all crossover voting may be sincere -- some voters may crossover "strategically" -- voting for a candidate they do not prefer but who is more likely to lose to a candidate they prefer more in their own party. This could result in more extreme candidates being elected. Although there is anecdotal evidence of strategic crossover, there is little evidence that it occurs to a significant degree in pure-open primaries.
A more likely explanation for the extremism in pure-open primary states (and this is mainly conjecture) lies in the reality that in a society with many diverse preferences it is often difficult to reach agreement or find a "center" point using any electoral process. The difficulty for society to aggregate preferences is a well known problem and was elegantly demonstrated by Kenneth Arrow in his famous General (Im)Possibility Theorem. The problem can be circumvented (although not avoided) if the structure of the electoral process controls the agenda and restricts the available choices. It may be that in pure-open primaries, the loss in structure and control leads to advantages for extreme candidates. Thus, the effect of more open primaries on the policy positions taken by candidates is still an "open" question.
Doug, your comments are a good follow through to Question No. 4. The personal dimension of politics is very important, but one most easily practiced in local elections. In national elections, it is very difficult to achieve the personal connection. For that reason, Iowa and New Hampshire have been important presidential testing grounds because the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary allow candidates to make the personal connection.
When the size of any electoral body grows beyond the ability to have personal communication between the candidate and the electorate, some information processing system is necessary. The parties have traditionally performed an important function in carrying the candidate's message to the many voters that he/she can not personally reach. Indeed, in the early days of the country, the parties operated their own newspapers to distribute their ideas and positions.
With the advent of radio, then television, and now the Internet, the
media can carry much of the message that in the past depended on the
party for distribution. In one sense, the electronic media create a
greater personal connection with the candidate because they allow more
people to see and hear the person running for office. On the other hand,
the nature of mass media is such that it limits the ability of candidates
to speak to particular, local concerns which are not of interest to
the national media.