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Primaries May Make Politics Better

Primaries in heavily Republican or Democratic districts elect higher-quality, more-experienced officials, according to a new study.
(Photo: bost/Flickr)

(Photo: bost/Flickr)

If political primaries ever seem like a nuisance, a circus, or just a general waste of time, take heart: They still help to produce better elected officials, according to two political scientists.

When it comes to finding decent politicians, you wouldn't necessarily expect early-season party primaries to do much good. Primaries sometimes bring out cranks and weirdos, and conventional wisdom says that primary voters tend to be more ideological than others. As a result, some political scientists have suggested, primaries could lead to general election candidates more concerned with grandstanding than seeking common—let alone middle—ground.

"Primaries, therefore, appear to be especially valuable when effective two-party competition is lacking. This is precisely where we expect them to be needed most." 

But like seemingly everything in the political science sphere, there are plenty of researchers who dispute that claim. Add to the list a new study from Shigeo Hirano and James Snyder, who argue that open-seat primaries in safe districts—ones that reliably side with Democrats and Republicans—help produce more experienced leaders. A safe district, they write in the Quarterly Journal of Political Science, is probably going to attract better candidates and have a larger pool of party members who already hold state or local office. Those candidates are more likely to face added attention and scrutiny, since news outlets pay more attention to the primary that actually matters—that is, the safe party's primary.

In other words, there might actually be something good about safe districts. To see if primaries in those districts actually do elect higher-quality leaders, Hirano and Snyder first gathered data on Gubernatorial and U.S. Senate open-seat primaries from 1952 to 2012, U.S. House primaries from 1978 to 2012, and Illinois judicial elections from 1986 to 2010. They then examined the relationship between the vote share in previous elections, a measure of how safe a seat is, and several measures of quality, including previous experience in a state legislature and, for judicial posts, Illinois State Bar Association endorsements. 

Primaries for safer seats, Hirano and Snyder found, produced not only higher-quality winners, but also more candidates and more candidates of high quality. What's more, using the same measures of quality, the duo found that, while general election winners were about the same quality in both competitive and safe elections, candidates in those races were actually a bit higher quality than in competitive ones.

"Primaries, therefore, appear to be especially valuable when effective two-party competition is lacking. This is precisely where we expect them to be needed most," the duo writes. About 60 percent of voters live in a state, county, or congressional district that lacks serious party competition, and primaries there may be essential to electing genuine leaders—or at least to filter out grandstanding hacks.