“The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization. It has become a menace to governing.”
— Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY)
During my conversations with fellow Democrats, the subject of ideological purity v. winning elections occasionally arises. We in California are fortunate to have all statewide constitutional offices, and majorities of both houses of the Legislature and our Congressional delegation safely in the hands of the Democratic Party.
Primary election voters of both Democratic and Republican parties often have a tendency to vote for the most ideologically pure candidate. This isn’t necessarily a problem in states or districts where the general election outcome isn’t in doubt; however, in “swing” states or districts, general election voters (including independents) may prefer candidates who reside closer to the center of the ideological spectrum.
Some election reforms have been tried in an effort to moderate primary election outcomes. One is the “open” primary, in which any voters may vote in a party’s primary election. Another is the “top-two” primary (sometimes called “jungle” primary), in which candidates from all parties are grouped together on one ballot, and the two candidates receiving the most votes advances to the general election. California is one of three states that uses a top-two primary in partisan elections (the others are Louisiana and Washington; Nebraska uses an open primary for its officially non-partisan legislative races).
The idea behind “open” and “top-two” primary elections was that if all voters, not just those registered with a particular party, could vote for any party’s candidates, it would result in more moderate candidates advancing to the general election. Whether this is the case remains a subject of intense research and discussion among political scientists.
In recent special elections, those Democratic candidates who managed to get elected in traditionally Republican states or districts held positions that hewed more closely to their electorate’s beliefs than Democratic candidates one might find in a Democratic stronghold. In California, we have an opportunity to “flip” a number of Congressional seats from “red” to “blue;” two of these are all or partially in San Diego County. Would an ideologically pure candidate or one who is perceived to be more moderate have a better chance of winning such a contest?
Some primary voters “sincerely” vote for candidates who adhere to their own personal beliefs; other, “strategic” voters will try to elect the candidate who has the best chance of winning the general election for their party. Which kind of voter are you?
– Frank King