Partisan Primaries Create Delicate Balancing Act for Lawmakers

Author: Glenn Davis
Created: 17 January, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
6 min read
It is a delicate yet sometimes not-very-graceful balancing act that our elected representatives must constantly perform. It is an act executed on a high-wire strung between opposing interests and electorates. Much of this challenge is considered by many to be a result of partisan primary elections.


As the theory goes, when candidates must first appeal to extreme primary voters before a broader general electorate, their subsequent voting behavior is highly influenced by the first group. The expected result is greater polarization than would otherwise be seen if the partisan primary was avoided.

Does the partisan primary system lead to a change in the legislative habits of our lawmakers? And, if this is true, is it responsible for the extreme partisanship which seems so ingrained in the current Congress?

In all but three U.S. states (Calif., Wash., and La.), voters partisan primaries to decide which candidates move on to the general election. The exceptions use a system which allows all voters and candidates to participate on a single ballot, regardless of party affiliation. In these “nonpartisan primaries,” typically a "Top-2" system determines who will be included in a runoff general election.



Not surprisingly, considerable research has been done to determine if the effect of primaries on partisanship is supported by empirical evidence. UC San Diego Professor Seth Hill recently authored a study to try to answer some of these questions. Hill sums up his premise in this way:

"If candidates must appeal both to a primary electorate with far-from-center policy preferences and a general electorate with more moderate policy preferences, candidates may diverge from the policies they would support if they only had to win the general election."
While popular opinion supports this argument, Hill asserts that most research in the area suggests otherwise. When a candidate must first win a partisan primary and subsequently win the general election, the legislator must please both electorates. , indicating no result in increased polarization.

However, from his own modeling, based on public opinion survey data and representative voting records in Congress, Hill finds that the preferences of primary electorates actually do influence the voting behavior of legislators. He concludes that this influence is about equal to that of the general electorate:

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"[These results] suggest that, were candidates to Congress not required to first stand before partisan primaries, there may be less polarization in voting in Congress."

Fortunately, for most candidates, the electorate only sees a small subset of a candidate’s actual performance, and often a carefully orchestrated one. Roll-call voting records are the domain of "political elites." The rest of us rely on a representative’s public face — sound bites, campaign speeches, and other media coverage — things that can be more intentionally "spun" to balance between the opposing sides.

, Jacobson maintains that "polarization and gridlock are defining characteristics of present-day American national politics... unlikely to diminish until voters begin to punish the warriors."

Another political scientist from UCSD, Professor Gary Jacobson, has also dedicated a considerable body of work on the subject. In a 2013 paper

In an email interview, Jacobson said partisan primary systems "tend to pull candidates toward the extremes because primary electorates tend to be more ideologically committed and partisan."

He agreed that partisan primaries impact the roll-call votes of legislators:

"Many members are more threatened by challengers within their own party than by challengers of the other party. The Republican senators who lost to right-wing challengers serve as a object lesson to current members who might consider straying from party orthodoxy."

Looking ahead to the upcoming primary season, Jacobson maintains that this polarization is likely to continue. He goes on to say how Republicans stand to gain from this phenomenon in congressional elections, while it favors Democrats in presidential elections due to the structural distribution of regular voters.

The balancing act is clearly made more difficult by extremism; the farther apart the ends, the more care the tightrope walker must take walking from one side to the other. A stumble in the middle can abruptly end the act.

On the other side, In 2008, a group of four political science professors from Columbia, MIT, Harvard, and the University of Chicago co-authored a paper entitled "Primary Competition and Partisan Polarization in the U.S. Senate." These authors maintain that while scholars, journalists, politicians, and other observers argue that primary elections are a cause of political polarization, the evidence suggests otherwise. While this is a compelling argument, they claim:

"We find little or no evidence of a link between primary election competition and extremism or moderation on roll-call votes in the U.S. Senate."
Their analysis concludes that the empirical evidence suggesting a link between partisan primaries and congressional polarization is, at best, mixed. Therefore, this "casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that the primary system in the United States fuels the growing ideological schism between the parties."

Does this mean the balancing act is just an illusion? Certainly not from the point of view of the candidate walking on the thin flexible wire.

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Looking at the issue from the sphere of non-academics, National Public Radio recently reported on efforts by states to reduce the attention Congress pays to their base voters on the right or left. This, according to the NPR report, can be accomplished by a combination of redistricting efforts and reforms in primary systems.

Steve Peace, a former legislator who spearheaded "Top-Two" efforts in California, told NPR that politicians are "far more reasonable human beings than we appear to be in public, because we all act like idiots trying to appeal to that narrow partisan base that we're dependent upon for re-election."

Peace maintains a consistent position on the effects of partisan primaries on voters, candidates, and government function. In a recent interview, he mentioned how politicians are ultimately punished for their efforts to work together and seek compromise, and how this is at the root of voter disappointment with the system.

"Most of us expect our representatives to work with each other to resolve differences of opinion in a practical and reasonable manner," he said.

"Elections will continue to be driven by simplistic messaging by Democrats and Republicans, respectively, because partisan primary systems reward the approach."

He explains how this will be apparent in the upcoming election season. Nonpartisan primaries, if they were more widespread, would change this.

The views of Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist in California, were also included in the NPR piece. Schnur told NPR that California's redistricting and new primary system have led to less polarization in the state. He maintains that representatives in California "can actually work across party lines without having to worry about the tea party or Move On running a primary challenge against them."

In the end, a representative is accountable to his or her electorate. They will only reach the desired goal of winning the general election if they can arrive there without getting knocked off the wire by their party base.

It is a difficult balance. The conventional wisdom that this challenge results in greater polarization has mixed scientific support, but perhaps it involves some combination of art and science. Either way, the high-wire act continues between opposing interests. Learning to appease groups with diverse concerns can make or break a politician. Still, the show must go on.

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