In Defense of Primaries

February 26th, 2010 by rubenr

A couple of days ago I was talking to someone who was smitten with the fact that the Indiana Democratic Party gets to hand-pick a Democratic nominee to succeed Evan Bayh (since no one  is running in the Democratic Primary for his seat).  The logic was this:  Primaries can get bad candidates elected; the fear in moderate Indiana being that “too liberal” a candidate could win the primary and lose the general election.  Meanwhile, in Minnesota’s race to replace Governor Tim Pawlenty, the DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the equivalent of the the State Democratic Party elsewhere) has decided to move their party convention from June to April (even though the official primary isn’t until September) in the hopes of endorsing a candidate early (and making the primary election moot), the goal being to “build greater momentum for the general election.”

What’s going on here?  Since when do we hate primaries?  While it may be true that a bad candidate can get elected via a primary, I seriously doubt having elites hand-pick candidates leads to a better result.  I’m actually a huge fan of primary elections.  I think competitive primaries are the only way to truly test candidates (their ability to campaign, connect with voters, flush skeletons from opponent’s closets, etc.) and thus go into the general election with a broad base of established popular support and some momentum.

So why is everyone so scared of them? There seems to be two different driving forces to the situations I described above, in Indiana the fear is of the Democratic voters, who may elect someone too liberal (a valid concern, but one that can be addressed during a primary: someone can run as the moderate electable candidate).  In Minnesota, the DFL seems to want to mimic an incumbent’s advantage in a general election: not having to face a primary challenger and thus the ability to campaign in a general election early (while the opposing party “wastes” time on primaries).

I’m not convinced that this sort of incumbent-type advantage is actually worth it, especially if you’re not running against an incumbent! (The Governor’s seat in MN is open)  Particularly when you consider the benefits of a primary (rigorously testing a candidate, gaining tested popular support, media attention, etc.) against the possible flaws of having elites cherry-pick candidates (such as general discontent with elites deciding rather than voters, picking someone who looks great on paper but can’t campaign, or picking someone with a hidden October surprise that could have been flushed out during a primary).

Plus, we don’t have great modern examples of elite-selected candidates.  Let’s look at last year’s Senate Vacancy Shuffle:  We got Roland Burris in IL and Kirsten Gillibrand in NY.  Burris is widely unpopular and is stepping down, while Gillibrand is facing a primary challenge from Harold Ford Jr.

So, now that I’ve boasted the greatness of Primaries, I’d like to point out that not all primaries are equal.  An effective primary battle that produces a good candidate for a general election should be competitive, it should be long (since voters aren’t as tuned in to primaries as much as they are general elections, for example Illinois’ recent primary is likely too early), and the election system should allow, at the very least, independent voters to participate in either the Democratic or Republican ballots.

Don’t forget to participate in your primary elections this year! (If you’re lucky enough to have one)

One Response to “In Defense of Primaries”

  1. rubenr says:

    Apparently now Harold Ford Jr. has caught fear-of-primary fever…. he’s announced that he won’t be challenging Gillibrand after all. As you can guess, I think this is a bad move. I don’t think Gillibrand is that popular in NY, I think a primary battle would do more good than harm, and I can already see GOP ads trying to tie Gillibrand to Patterson’s mess (who appointed her).

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