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What's the Point of Primaries?

The whole idea that we have a right to pick a party's nominees has gotten a bit out of hand.
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(Photo: batwrangler/Flickr)

(Photo: batwrangler/Flickr)

What’s the point of primaries? That question isn’t meant to sound flip. It’s actually something we need to talk about. I was thinking about it a bit last week while reading through a paper Susan Scarrow presented at a conference on political parties held at Duke University.

Primaries are the dominant method in the United States by which a party determines its nominees for president, Congress, state legislative seats, and other partisan offices. Primaries serve a very powerful filtering function, screening out many potential candidates in favor of just one.

Why do we even have the concept that parties owe anything to their "members," or that partisans have the "right" to participate in the nomination of candidates?

Just at the presidential level, there are roughly two dozen individuals that have signaled a serious interest in running for president in 2016. Maybe a few hundred more could run a serious race if given a chance. More than 100 million Americans meet the Constitution’s rough qualification to serve as president, and quite a few of them would actually do the job if it was offered to them. Yet by this time next year, only two people will have any real chance of becoming president, and very few of us will have really been part of that decision-making process. A few hundred thousand partisans in Iowa and New Hampshire will exert an outsized influence on making these decisions on behalf of the rest of us, but really, just a few thousand party insiders and activists will effectively make these choices.

But the original point of primaries was to make party decisions more democratic. Prior to the widespread adoption of primaries a century ago, parties generally picked their nominees through conventions, usually heavily guided by one or a few party bosses. Primaries were seen as a radical new reform that would allow rank-and-file party members, rather than party bosses, to make the key decision of which candidates the party nominated.

Internally democratic parties sounds like a good idea at first, but as political scientist E.E. Schattschneider argued, it doesn't really hold up if you think about it for more than a few minutes. For one thing, he notes, why do we even have the concept that parties owe anything to their "members," or that partisans have the "right" to participate in the nomination of candidates? American parties are not exactly membership organizations. Yes, you can call yourself a Democrat, but you don't need to pay dues or even vote for Democratic candidates to do so. In most states, you could register as a Democrat, but that requires little more than a postage stamp, and you can switch your registration to Republican or Independent or Communist, and in many states you could still vote in the Democratic primary. As Schattschneider wrote in 1942:

The hospitality of the parties has been practically unlimited; no one is forced to join a party and, if anyone does join, he assumes no obligations. In what sense is a partisan injured if he is deprived of the right to control an organization toward which he has no duties? The whole theory is chaotic.

Basically, he argues, the concept of parties having mass "members" is really little more than a polite fiction. Key party decisions have always been made by a small group of elites. Partisan voters obviously serve an important role and may constrain the decisions that the elites make, but to think of them having a right to control the parties is absurd.

And yet, if anything, we have further embraced that absurdity over time. To quote from a recent article in the Independent Voter News:

While parties have a private right to nominate candidates, and thereby preclude non-members from their voting process, the states and the federal government have a much larger constitutional obligation to provide all voters, not just party members, a meaningful opportunity to participate in our election process on a level playing field.

Perhaps the involvement of the government in the administration of primary elections, and thus the nomination of candidates, made this conclusion inevitable. But here is nonetheless the popular argument that all voters should be able to participate in primary elections. That is, everyone should be able to participate in the nomination of candidates, even for parties to which they hold no allegiance.

This strikes me as a fundamental misreading of the point of primaries. Yes, the right to vote is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy, but that is the right to vote in a general election. That's the contest that determines who actually gets to serve in government. The nomination is really just an internal party decision. If I'm not part of that party, I have no more right to decide its nominees than a Seahawks fan has to determine whether Peyton Manning plays for the Broncos next season or a Coca-Cola drinker has to decide on a new Pepsi formula. I can reward the party with my loyalty or punish it by defecting based on my feelings about its decisions, but to consider myself among the leaders who determine its nominees is at least a bit delusional.

What Makes Us Politic? is Seth Masket’s weekly column on politics and policy.