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The story of primary elections in America part two: The US vs the world

Dispensing with smoke-filled rooms and party bosses in favour of open primaries certainly sounds more democratic. But, both in the US and other democracies, there are unintended consequences.

By Corbin Duncan

This is part two of a three-part series. Part one, which explains how primaries and the permanent campaign became part of  US political life, can be found here. Part three, which considers potential solutions, will be released next week.

Established by the Democratic National Committee in response to the rising progressive movement of the 1960s, the McGovern-Fraser Commission filed its report on internal party reform in 1971. Its headline claim: “The cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.”

Yet almost 50 years after their introduction, primary elections now underpin a political class which is intransigent, unrepresentative and seemingly beholden to monied interests. The bruising 2016 presidential primary race might prove most damning of the commission’s claim, showing itself to be both a poor democratic safeguard and capable of inflicting lasting brand damage on candidates.

In her book, What Happened, former presidential nominee Hilary Clinton took aim at her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders. Clinton argues that the firebrand socialist’s rhetoric left “lasting damage” and paved the way for “[President] Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign.” 

The numbers agree. According to a YouGov poll of 50,000 electors, over one in ten people who voted for Sanders in the primary shifted their vote to President Trump in the general election. The data, if replicated in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, was enough to swing the election to Trump. These voters were registered Democrats who, for the most part, were voting against Clinton rather than for Trump. Had they stayed home or parked their vote with a minor party candidate, Clinton would be president.

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And so, one cannot help but ask, what was the point of it all? The Democrats nominated the establishment candidate after all, but may have lost the election in the process. The primaries provided a legitimate platform for Sanders to attack Clinton as an equivocating foreign policy hawk much too cosy with Wall Street. Sanders’ public criticism of Clinton continued as he remained in the race long after his path to the nomination became impossible. 

Open primaries invite parties to go to battle with themselves for all to see, accentuating fractures in party unity and doing the work of their political opponents. One might argue Sanders’ insurgent campaign was worth it if it was able to pull the Democratic Party to the left. However, factions within closed parties are just as influential in achieving policy outcomes, nominating candidates and, importantly, placing allies in posts within the party organisation. Concentrating voting privileges allows factions from the wings of the party to become more organized and effective, and usually results in negotiated power-sharing arrangements which prioritise unity and outcomes for each group. 

Ideological flexibility is possible in closed parties. Elections are about winning – and asking the public to weigh in on internal struggles does little in the way of achieving that goal.

Safeguarding Democracy Undemocratically

The 2016 Republican contest also did little to engender confidence in the democratic safeguards of the primary system. Closed parties have the capacity to prevent candidates with authoritarian tendencies from being legitimised by a party endorsement. 

Professor Graeme Orr of the University of Queensland, an Australian expert on electoral law and process, spoke to me about how differences in candidate selection can vary a party’s ability to vet its own candidates. Orr said that vesting greater power in party officials allows “party machines [to] act as filters” in preselections, giving them “a direct ability to rein in errant [representatives].” Parties in Australia, Canada and the UK operate ‘candidate suitability’ boards in which candidates for preselection attend something akin to a job interview.

Irrespective of your opinion on President Trump or his policies, there is little in his background which would suggest he possesses a greater than average understanding of public policy. Indeed, his candidacy presents some easily recognisable electoral liabilities for a campaign; his well-publicised wealth and womanizing risked him being seen as out-of-touch and turning off women voters. Orr implies that Trump would not have made it through an Australian preselection. 

This is not to say Trump should not have been able to run like any other citizen; rather that, on paper, he presents a character most modern parties would be loath to associate with.

But the most troubling aspect of this nomination was not that the Republican party was being led by man viewed as uncouth, but that it was lending the centuries-old GOP brand to a candidate with express anti-democratic views. In their bestselling work, How Democracies Die, Harvard University Professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the backroom politicking of congressional caucuses and closed conventions “systematically filtered out would-be authoritarian candidates.” 

“Dangerous outsiders simply couldn’t win the party nomination. And as a result, most didn’t even try,” they wrote. There was, however, no shortage of political ‘outsiders’ running for office following the introduction of primaries – and try they did.

Levitsky and Ziblatt cite civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Southern Baptist leader Pat Robertson, television commentator Pat Buchanan and magazine publisher Steve Forbes, as unconventional candidates who sought party nomination following the McGovern-Fraser reforms. For some time the outsiders were predictably unsuccessful, but the age of Facebook fake news and Twitter has turned that equation on its head. 

It’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of anti-establishment firebrands. Professor Orr argues that “in populist times” primaries “encourage candidates to run as outsiders,” claiming it may be in their interests to “[pit] themselves against [their own] party”. Trump’s success for the Republicans should be viewed as evidence of how parties can benefit from outsider challenges and how primary elections allow democratic will to triumph over the political elite.

Indeed, a similar phenomenon took place in the British Labour Party’s 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn to the party leadership. Corbyn – a longtime back-bench MP on the far left fringe of the party – was helped by a move to give all party members, trade unions and MPs an equal vote in the contest. That rule-chang and the advent of £3 memberships represented a shift towards the American, open primary model and returned a fringe, firebrand leader who has so far proved unable and unwilling to try to win over the centre ground of the British electorate. 

So while primaries do more to promote the democratic will of electors, closer scrutiny ought to be applied to who the typical, and increasingly empowered, primary voter is.

Intuitively, we know primary voters and party members are committed to a political position and will tend to be more engaged and entrenched in their views. While in closed parties one can expect hard-headed powerbrokers with a view to general election success to moderate candidate choice, US primaries have little-to-no equivalent check. Where centrist swing voters are unlikely to find themselves voting in party ballot and those who do vote are further empowered, these party systems encourage radical candidates to galvanise an already out-of-center party electorate who might be more receptive to firebrand politics.

The recent Tory leadership race in the UK is another strong example of how a stronger voice for partisan members in candidate selection creates a politics which favors a candidate who can most skillfully outflank the other, at the expense of moderate swing voters come the general election. While Boris Johnson swept to the leadership with a strong majority of the Conservative party membership, a YouGov poll had his opponent, Jeremy Hunt, as preferred prime minister among general election voters. 

To get a sense of just how far from the centre the Tory base is compared to the broader electorate, YouGov released another poll showing 60 per cent of Tory members believe “Islam is generally a threat to Western civilization”. On the face of it then, allowing more voters to have a say in candidate selection should return candidates who will fare better at a general election – but in reality, free votes of the membership push candidates to the fringes, leaving all voters to deal with the consequences. 

Dispensing with party bosses as a means of filtering candidate suitability and broadcasting intra-party warfare on 24-hour cable news could be considered more democratic – but could hardly be considered a cure.

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