The US Primary System Is Very Unusual

Todd Tucker
Feb 21 · 4 min read

Julia Azari has a provocative piece up in the WaPo, where she makes the case for changes to the way we think about primaries. The original headline (picked by the editor) was downright inflammatory, saying “It’s time to give the elites a bigger say over picking the presidential nominee.” And she noted right away, here preferred headline was “a nomination contest is not a general election.” In the days since, WaPo has settled on “it’s time to switch to preference primaries.”

The original headline led to Julia getting ratioed, which highlights a gap between the way political scientists and others think about these questions. I think some international comparisons help here. A few thoughts:

From the comparative politics literature, we know that there is a wide array of organizing the selection of party leaders, and — for much of modern history — the US open- or semi-open primary was the total outlier among advanced democracies. (tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.108…)

There are considerable restrictions placed on voting in primaries in other countries, described in Susan Scarrow’s book. (play.google.com/store/books/de…)

Traditionally, European parties restricted some or most policy and leadership decisions to registered-dues paying members or to an even narrower band of party officials. Indeed, political scientists see this as one way to incentivize greater party activism. Granted, many of these are proportional representation, multi-party parliamentary systems, where it’s easier to find a party that fits your ideology. In the US first-past-the-post, two-party presidential system, having closed or elite-led leadership selection would seriously limit the spectrum of political options. Which is part of the reason the system has been opened up. I read Julia’s intervention as attempting to square that circle, meeting somewhere in the middle between the strengths and weaknesses of each system, e.g. ranked choice voting and voting on issue positions (not just leaders).

European parties — facing a decline in membership — have begun moving in this direction, polling their members for what stance on issues the parties should take. Though, as seen below, this also doesn’t guarantee more turnout. (From Scarrow).

The Five Star Movement in Italy is an extreme example of this party-rule-by-poll, showing strengths and weaknesses. (ft.com/content/090248…) The research shows that there can be perverse consequences to seemingly more democratic directions. For instance, research on Canada shows that open contestation in primaries where one faction doesn’t win depresses the latter’s activism. (journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.117…)

And that second block quote is of course related to some of the better faith reactions to Julia’s piece: we’re facing a primary season where the most energized faction has good reason to fear that their plurality win will be overridden by party elites or billionaires. My own preference is for a combo of compulsory voting with instant run-off ranked choice voting — at both the primary & general level. Julia’s recos on more member input into policy formation would be a way to pull members in — not just at election time. (medium.com/@toddntucker/c…) But one fix short of that for sure would be to join the rest of the countries that do conduct primary elections (mostly other presidential systems in Latin America) which do primaries across the nation on the same day.

Hell, even dividing the states up into 3–4 chunks of racially and otherwise diverse states and pick 3–4 paid holidays for doing the election over the course of a month would be an improvement.

(Adapted from this Twitter thread.)

Todd Tucker

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I write about democracy, political economy, and trade. Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and Roosevelt Forward.

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