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Our odd primary system — and its odd results

REUTERS/Darren Hauck
This year, 30 percent of 10 percent — or about 3 percent — of eligible voters decided the most consequential race of the primary season in Minnesota.

This the fifth in a series of stories comparing the U.S. system of politics and elections with other democracies around the world.

Minnesota held a statewide primary on Aug. 12.

The marquee contest, for the Republican nomination for governor, was fairly close and exciting, with the top four candidates each getting more than 20 percent of the vote. Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson (who also had the endorsement of the Republican convention) won by a solid-but-not-huge margin with 30 percent of the vote, but…

… that was 30 percent of a staggeringly low overall turnout of 10 percent of eligible voters.

(The 10 percent turnout was not a record low nor an anomaly. In the 2012 primary, it was 9.28 percent. In 2004: 7.73 percent. )

So this year, 30 percent of 10 percent — or about 3 percent — of eligible voters decided the most consequential race of the primary season in Minnesota, a state that regularly leads the nation in voter participation on general election days.

(Just to clarify: The total turnout for the primary was 10 percent of the Minnesota electorate. Fewer than half of those voters even voted in the race for the Republican nomination because they most of them voted in either the Democratic or Independence Party primaries. That is, of course, reasonable and natural in a primary. But the overall point stands. Primaries can make very consequential decisions with very few voters, not because the races are close but because the vast majority of the electorate doesn’t vote in primaries.)

Primaries and other nations

Primaries. We’re so used to hearing about them (although not particularly used to voting in them). But it turns out that when you apply a prism of international comparisons among democracies, primaries are another way that the U.S. political system differs from all other world democracies. Most of the others don’t have primaries at all. None of them rely so heavily on primaries.

In our system, primaries generally are used to nominate candidates, not only for president, Congress and statewide offices (in Minnesota we’ve got that list down to four offices — not counting judges — but in Texas, for example, they also still elect an agriculture commissioner and a railroad commission), but also for county and municipal offices.

All of these are susceptible to primary elections, which are almost universally decided by a small portion of the electorate — much, much smaller than the typical 60 percent that characterizes presidential elections. And in some of those down-ballot races, the primary voter is often confronted with a choice between two or three names they’ve never seen before who may differ on issues the voter has never imagined for an office the function of which the voter cannot describe. (Note that Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have adopted Ranked Choice Voting, no longer have primaries for municipal offices.)

In other democracies, parties use an internal process, dominated by party leaders, elected party officials or, in some cases, a fairly small group of card-carrying, dues-paying members to choose their nominees. The larger public doesn’t get involved until general election day (which they don’t have to call “general election day” because there is no other election day).

The United States used to use the same basic system. Primaries arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a reaction against the system being too dominated by insiders and party bosses.

Minnesota was, by the way, among the leaders in the creation of the primary election. According to ACE: The Electoral Knowledge Networks, “The first statewide primary was held 1899 in Minnesota. Two years later, Minnesota instituted the first mandatory statewide primary system,” although I gather in some versions of the history, Wisconsin had a couple of important firsts.

Progressive Era ‘reform’

Anyway, the primary was one of those Progressive Era “reforms.” And if you look at it in the “corrupt party boss” era in which it emerged, it sounds like a good idea. And maybe it is.

But tied to the super-low turnouts, the primary system has some odd, troubling effects, the most famous of this year was the defeat — by a small margin in a low-turnout primary in one congressional district of Virginia — of Eric Cantor. Cantor was, of course, the majority leader of the U.S. House and, as such, a high-ranking leader of both the U.S. House and the national Republican Party. He represented a reliably Republican district. He likely could have stayed in Congress as long as he wanted and perhaps become speaker of the House, if all he had to do was beat the Democratic nominee every two years.

But this year, he faced a primary challenge from the right, by David Brat, a Tea Party favorite, who stunned the world by beating Cantor in the primary by 7,200 votes. (Brat’s Minnesota connection noted here.) That makes a solid 11-percentage-point margin, and the primary actually had an unusually high turnout compared to recent Virginia primaries. In fact, the turnout was so high that some analysts believe Brat was helped my mischievous Democrats crossing over and voting in the Republican primary (which, if it happened, would be legal, if not exactly cricket, under rules governing primary voting in Virginia).

But this surprisingly large turnout was still just 13.7 of eligible voters. An observer from another democracy would likely find it strange that a politician holding such a high-ranking position of the majority party in the House and a likely future speaker could be removed from politics by so few people of no special public or party rank.

I don’t mean to portray it as any kind of tragedy. Brat won fair and square. Cantor has already fallen up into a much higher-paying job on Wall Street. He was seamlessly replaced as speaker-in-waiting by a very similar Republican.

Political Scientist Steven L. Taylor, a lead author of one of the comparative democracy textbooks on which I’ve been relying, put the problem this way: “The U.S. system of primaries shifts an awful lot of leverage to a very small primary electorate,” and, for the most part, shifts it away from the larger electorate and away from the political parties and their leaders.

Over recent cycles, this has strengthened the extreme factions — especially within the dynamics of the Republican Party — and reinforced some of the gridlock that has characterized recent sessions of Congress.

“A member of Congress is deeply beholden to whoever has the power to nominate him for another term,” Taylor said. In other systems, that’s the party leadership. In the American system “that’s the primary voter,” Taylor said.

Changes incentive

You’ve seen this analysis before, but now think about it in the context of how our system — in this case, the single-member district, the preponderance of “safe seats,” the reliance on primaries, the low turnout — changes the incentive for a member to think about how to best secure his or her political future, especially in the current political circumstance of a Republican member.

If he or she has a “safe seat” — as Cantor did, and as most U.S. House members do – that representative has little to worry about from the next Democratic challenger. “There’s very little [House Speaker] John Boehner can do to punish him,” Taylor said. “For a lot of members, the biggest worry is being ‘primaried.’”

Recent history suggests the primary challenge a GOP member of Congress worries about will come from the right, fueled by the no-compromise enthusiasm of the Tea Party movement, sometimes fused with the ideological purity of the party’s Liberty wing.

In the 2012 election, several of those challengers — especially for Senate seats — succeeded in defeating incumbents, often based on the argument that the incumbent had engaged in too many compromises with big-government Democrats.

This year, most incumbents facing such challenges survived — with Cantor as the biggest exception. But what did they do to survive? Taylor argues that in today’s climate, many of the incentives are to move right, even — perhaps especially — on those big showdown votes over a compromise to pass a budget that will keep the government open or even a must-pass vote to raise the debt ceiling in order to preserve the government’s credit rating.

I’m sure it’s possible to argue that as long as all the voters have a reasonable opportunity to vote, it’s no sin to allow the electorate to choose the nominees. And it’s hard to get excited about transferring power from the electorate (even a small portion of it) to anything that can be described as the party bosses. But Taylor’s analysis raises the question of whether the American devotion to primaries is helping our democracy function. Certainly the rest of the democratic world, with the opportunity to observe how we nominate general-election candidates, has decided to go in another direction.

Because this isn’t a presidential election year, I haven’t spent much time here on the long, winding process of primaries (and, in some states, caucuses) to choose the nominees for president (although technically what we choose in those primaries are delegations to the national party conventions, which ratify the presidential nominations, but, since the 1960s, the nominees have always been the winners of the primary process).

That process is full of truly bizarre features, like the one that assigns two states (Iowa and New Hampshire) a permanent oversized role in the sorting out of the field. Like many features of our system, we’re so used to it that we have trouble grasping how strange that is. There’s nothing else in the world remotely like it.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/13/2014 - 09:05 am.

    Comparing Other Systems

    The low turnout for primaries is very easily explained. The choices between two members of the same party are so small that they don’t matter to most voters. Or let me put it this way, how often is the choice so large that a reliable voter for the Dem or Rep party won’t vote in the general if their preferred choice loses?

    A question about this broad comparison of other democratic systems: how do they handle the thorny ID problem? If requiring a photo ID is de facto voter suppression, how is that problem solved by other, more caring nations?

  2. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 10/13/2014 - 09:42 am.

    Identification in other advanced democracies

    Mr. Defor’s question was presumably directed to Mr. Black, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway. In all the other advanced democracies I’ve looked at, there is a robust, pervasive, government-provided identification infrastructure which is also used for (but not motivated by) the identification of voters. The United States seems to be unique in its reluctance to have a single, centralized list of who the citizens and residents are and to automatically issue uniform identity documents to them.

  3. Submitted by Doug Gray on 10/13/2014 - 09:57 am.

    VA primaries vs. caucus

    The crossover issue was why, during my time in the Old Dominion, parties used to use the “unconstructed caucus” (native Virginians cringed when I called it the “unreconstructed caucus”) system for nominations. Basically it’s a primary run by the party organizations at the local level, so they can keep out mischief-makers. One signs a pledge to support the party’s endorsed candidates and then proceeds to cast a ballot. No idea what they were thinking when they went with a statewide primary for Cantor’s seat.

  4. Submitted by Arvonne Fraser on 10/13/2014 - 11:15 am.

    why not trust parties??

    What organization worth it’s salt doesn’t have a nominating committee? None that I know of. The purpose of a nominating committee is to vet candidates, decide whether they can be trusted and have the ability to perform well in office. This is what parties do when they endorse.

    The endorsement system is not perfect. It is what European and other parliamentary systems use, however. In those you vote the party list. In other words, the party nominates.

    Eric Black is doing political education. Even though I do not always agree with him, we do need more of thoughtful discussion of our political processes. This might provoke more people to vote. Comparing parliamentary systems to ours is not very useful. We need to understand our own system, critique it and try to improve it, but we should not be using an example (parliamentary) which is not comparable. Remember the old apples and oranges phrase.

  5. Submitted by Hal Davis on 10/13/2014 - 11:44 am.

    Bigwigs ousted

    Eric Black writes, “An observer from another democracy would likely find it strange that a politician holding such a high-ranking position of the majority party in the House and a likely future speaker could be removed from politics by so few people of no special public or party rank.”

    Mebbe, but the parliamentary system of the United Kingdom and Canada could lead to this outcome. The majority party’s leaders, no matter how high their position, each represent a single district (called a “riding” in Canada). The riding’s voters alone determine who represents them. In the first-part-the-post system, a cabinet member, even a prime minister, can be voted out.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/13/2014 - 01:02 pm.

    Primaries and pre-K

    Primaries, like party caucuses, strike me as yet another example of “American Exceptionalism,” but written in the manner of a child just learning her letters, with some of them backward, and written on nothing approaching a straight line. My grandchildren are reacqainting me with this…

    Also like caucuses, primaries seem to bring out the zealots, especially on the right-hand end of the political spectrum. Hence, the tossing aside of Eric Cantor for someone even more extreme, though Mr. Cantor has managed a promotion to a position for which he is eminently unqualified. Democratic primary voters sometimes – though certainly not always – do not go along with the preferences of local caucuses, at least in my experience, but it’s the degree of engagement that seems to make the most important difference.

    Zealots of both left and right are disproportionately represented in their respective party caucuses in those states that have them, and the same kinds of people, with the same kind of engagement (you can call it dedication, or you can call it obsession), are the most likely primary voters. Personally, I tend to avoid political extremes, which makes me a fairly unusual primary voter in some respects. My particular obsession is the notion of “civic duty,” and that’s what gets me to the polling place on primary election day.

    Frankly, I liked Missouri’s primary system, wherein no declaration of party loyalty was necessary. The election judge simply asked you whether you wanted the Democratic or the Republican primary ballot (no viable 3rd parties appeared on primary ballots while I voted in Missouri), so “crossover” voting was always a possibility. It wasn’t necessary to register as a member of *any* political party in order to vote in a primary there. In Colorado, by contrast, voter registration required a declaration of party preference, including “independent.”

    Max Hailperin raises an interesting point, I think, which might present to both liberals and conservatives alike an uncomfortable choice. A national I.D. system would almost certainly include a photo, which ought to be to the liking of those on the right, but it would nonetheless be a *national I.D. system*, the very idea of which strikes me as something those who call themselves “conservative” would oppose reflexively. For those on the left, the dilemma is that such a national system would make it very, very difficult for election officials to deny the vote to minorities and the poor, which might well help Democrats in terms of voter turnout, but because it’s a national I.D. system, it would likely include a photo, and would also further limit whatever shreds of privacy (in terms of I.D.) might still remain in this computerized age.

    What to do, what to do…?

  7. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/13/2014 - 05:14 pm.

    nominating extremist…

    “Over recent cycles, this has strengthened the extreme factions — especially within the dynamics of the Republican Party — and reinforced some of the gridlock that has characterized recent sessions of Congress.” Eric Black.

    There are extreme elements in the GOP, but are not the DEMS dominated by extremist?

    Are not the extreme DEMS equally responsible for the gridlock in D.C.?

    To simply blame the GOP and the current process for nominating and electing extremist that are obstructionist is political spin and not factual.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/13/2014 - 10:11 pm.

      Extreme Democrats

      Are not who you think they are. Bernie Sanders (not a Democrat technically btw) is about as liberal as there is and he is nowhere near as far to the left as folks like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz et al are to the right.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/14/2014 - 07:53 am.

      Extreme Dems

      Oh, they’re there but they’re simply part of the mainstream of the party. If a Republican wins the Presidency in 2016, all this talk of compromise will suddenly disappear. We’ll hear from Franken and Ellison the need to ‘stand against’ actions from the GOP. And eight years of criticism will quickly go down the memory hole.

      Right now there is a large pile of bills on Harry Reid’s desk, the majority of them passed in a bipartisan manner. He won’t allow the Senate to vote on them. To my knowledge, not a single prominent Dem or left leaning pundit has condemned him for this obstruction. Why? Because the politics favor burying those bills instead of embarrassing Senators and the President with voting on them.
      If you reverse the parties, this would be an example of ‘those Tea Party crazies’. No prize is offered for guessing why it doesn’t seem to register to those on the left.

  8. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 10/14/2014 - 12:36 am.

    National I.D.?

    For sake of argument, let’s ponder this:

    In some respects we already do have a national I.D. system — the Social Security number. Or as pals of mine on both sides of the spectrum like to call it, the National Government Tracking Number.

    If a photo component was added to that number, could that be considered a national i.d., which could be used no matter where one traveled? Of course, one would have to have the photo updated periodically. After all, for example, I really do not look like I did twenty five years ago when I finished my undergrad work.


    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/14/2014 - 09:21 am.

      There are laws

      limiting what the SS# can be used for.
      For instance, a store cannot require you to provide your number when you want to pay by check or credit card. I believe that it CAN be required for purchases over $10K (supposedly to make it easier to track terrorists).
      It is not under current law a national ID or tracking number, although it could form the basis for one if Congress passed the necessary legislation redefining it.

  9. Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/14/2014 - 09:40 am.


    Name for me, the last truly left wing, (in the global sense), Democratic adminstration. Or for that matter, name me the last truly liberal majority in either house of congress. The problem for many conservatives is that for many these haven’t occurred in their lifetimes, and as a result, they have no real concept of what liberalism actually is. Hint, our current President is no liberal, he’s a pragmatist that the left has been trying to push left (mainly unsuccessfully) the entirety of his tenure. The far right on the other hand has already succeeded in taking over the GOP lock,stock, and barrel. (Fitting imagery after all).

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 10/15/2014 - 07:50 am.


      Matt, I think that you’re completely wrong. Obama is a liberal, both self-described and in action. The movement from other liberals to push him out of the club is simply self protection. They don’t want to be splashed by his terrible approval ratings.

      As to your point about not know what a real liberal government is like, if Minnesota had a liberal government, what would be different?

      • Submitted by Matt Haas on 10/15/2014 - 09:00 am.

        So they were distancing

        In 2008? When he still wasn’t liberal? Glad you asked, living wage laws, single payer healh care, state owned energy, free education through post doc, drug decriminalization, shall I go on?

  10. Submitted by Hiram Foster on 10/14/2014 - 10:46 am.


    The founding fathers, I have been told, had a distaste for parties. The result was a constitution that while it didn’t rule out the existence of parties, did make it more difficult for them to operate effectively.

    ‘An observer from another democracy would likely find it strange that a politician holding such a high-ranking position of the majority party in the House and a likely future speaker could be removed from politics by so few people of no special public or party rank.”

    This is kind of a baffling comment. Participation of voters in the nominating process through primaries is much wider in the United States, than in Britain, for example where candidates these days, are chosen by small, somewhat self selected groups of party activists. I think it’s pretty rare that a party leader would not be nominated by the activists in his local constituency, but if that were to happen, the party leader could shop for a constituency somewhere else. And the equivalent of what happened to Rep. Cantor does happen in Britain in the general election, where party leaders do occasionally lose elections for their seats, removed by voters of no special public or party rank.

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