Primaries now the most consequential part of American politics

A York polling station. Fewer than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians voted in primaries in 2012. — AP photo / The York Dispatch,York,PA

The party bosses fall in and out of love with it. The public, for the most part, misunderstands it. And voters end up hating it once it’s too late to do anything about it.

It’s the ugly duckling of American politics: the modern primary.

Primaries — whether on the presidential, congressional, state legislative or local scale — are among the more complex parts of electoral process in the United States. We hear all about them every four years during long, drawn out and bloody multi-state wars between candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination — and we hear even less about them when they happen on a local scale to pick a Congressional or state nominee.

But, over the past 40 years, the primary has become (arguably) the most consequential aspect of the American election.

Primaries are the lifeblood of political party machines, expensive slug-fests and essential process-of-elimination tools to help Democrats and Republicans choose their best candidates for the final round in November.

Yet, the American public largely ignores them, especially if it’s a Congressional race. Turnout for primaries, typically attended by the party faithful, is ridiculously low despite the money state and local governments put up to facilitate them. According to the Brookings Institution, 7.5 percent of eligible voters showed up at the primary polls during the 2010 Congressional midterm cycle (up just 3 percentage points compared to the 2006 midterms). It’s an embarrassing lack of return on the public dollars spent on everything from prepping polling precinct captains to setting up the voting machines.

“For years, there has been the widespread idea that general elections are simply a choice between the lesser of two evils,” notes Philly-based Democratic political strategist and former Obama 2012 campaign regional director Dan Siegel. “However, if people were more engaged in our primaries, we would get candidates that are more in line with our ideals and less representative of the fringe elements who show up every year. I think the party structures could only be more effective if they were to more actively endorse. But, I have mixed feelings about that.”

By virtue of their big box national branding, presidential primaries will attract more voters. But even then the turnout is a dismal slice of the larger voting-age ready electorate. While 34 percent of Pennsylvania voters showed up for the hard-fought 2008 presidential primaries, according to the George Mason University Elections Project, it dropped to less than 15 percent in 2012 since incumbent President Obama didn’t attract any contenders for his party’s nomination that year. Still, even with the high primary turnout in 2008, that’s just a little more than a quarter of the electorate.

Independent Voter Project counsel and legal strategist S. Chad Peace points out that nonpartisan primary systems in states like California and Washington open it up to all voters, regardless of party affiliation. Hence, it keeps it simple: all candidates can compete and all voters get to participate on a single ballot absent their party. “Therefore, candidates are accountable to all voters in the electorate, not just their party base, from the first part of the political process,” Peace said.

“Low turnout trends are caused by a variety of factors, including the partisan nature of primary elections,” Peace said. “Because candidates must first win their primary, they are held accountable first by these partisan voters.”

Peace blames it on political consultants who find the current environment more advantageous and much more lucrative. Not only do they make loot from managing campaigns and crafting strategies in the general elections, but they can also look forward to competitive primaries as a booming industry.

Even though elections since 2008 have been some of the most historic ever (from picking the first Black president to the dramatic polarization of the House and Senate), nearly 90 percent of all voters have not participated in the Congressional primaries and anywhere from 65 percent to 85 percent of voters have virtually ignored party nomination contests for president. With primaries left to partisans to decide, the risks to the political and policy-making process are enormous, as parties with closed primaries seem inclined to pick candidates from the far right or far left wings. Fewer moderates eventually lead to greater gridlock in Congress.

“Increased turnout in primaries could easily alleviate the election of extremists,” argues Elaine Kamarck of Brookings, one of the co-founders of a new Primaries Project initiated by the think tank to study primaries. “Primaries always attract the most committed and active partisans. [And yet] primaries are designed for obscurity.”

In 2014, the stakes remain high with Republicans poised to expand their numbers in the House of Representatives and now more likely to re-capture the Senate. The ramifications of a one-party dominated Congress are huge.

The first primaries, recently launched in deeply red Texas and heavily blue Illinois, offer clues into midterm outcomes for November. Many observers view recent primary results in Texas as a large sample of Republican establishment chiefs pushing back against tea party insurgents and fringe candidates in a bid to re-assert internal party discipline.

“Absolutely no one really votes in these things,” Kamarck said. “They’re designed in such a way that no one will do them. There’s no national date for primaries and they’re just hard for people to participate in.”

Republican political strategist CivicForumPAC Chair Ford O’Connell hasn’t seen a better system, yet. Closing primaries or having them all opened up is “like asking non-Catholics to pick the Pope,” O’Connell said.

“It can backfire on you,” O’Connell said. “Most people are relatively detached from politics and only conditioned to vote once a year, so, yeah, your fire-eaters show up.”

“But, there’s a bigger philosophical Jefferson versus Madison argument here. When you shift to a top two system, you begin to cut out minority voices. And that leads to the tyranny of the majority.”

Kamarck argues that decreased media coverage of primaries, spurred mainly by budget cuts and layoffs in the news business in recent years, is also contributing to low turnout. Voters can’t participate if they’re not seeing anything about it in the local newspaper or watching it unfold on their local morning newscast. Seth Masket, an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Denver, also agrees.

“An increased focus by the media on primaries could help boost turnout,” Masket said. “What might also help is decreasing the costs of participation, possibly by holding primaries over several days or on weekends. But primaries were not always an important feature of elections until around 1972 when Democrats went through a gut-wrenching nomination process,” Kamarck said. “Today, primaries are a cheap way to control elections.”

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