Who Won? Maybe Not So Quick

We are really getting into mid-term primary season. Every Tuesday night seems to bring a new set of results. Americans love to boil things down to their simplest form; in this case winners and losers. The big question is always: Who won? My short answer is: Not so fast. Let’s explore.

Much as in special elections it is important not to put too much stock into the results. Extrapolating wider trends from narrow races is a dangerous game. Primaries are even worse. It is simply too tempting to expect political junkies and journalists to refrain from speculation, but careful analysis is required if you are to derive meaningful insight from a primary. All “electoral districts” are not equal and all primaries certainly are not.

The first thing to remember is that a primary is often either superfluous or simply just a preliminary round. No ballgame is won at halftime. For the purposes of this article I will define the “electoral district” as the area in which the contest is taking place. It may be a state or some political subdivision thereof. Some states stay reliably blue or red for decades. For example I will say with certainty that the Republican nominee will win this year’s Utah Senate race. Who the Democratic nominee is really won’t matter in the long run. The same is true for districts. In the case of districts, gerrymandering is a powerful “drug”. Analyzing those primary races is a waste of time.

Based on the early results a lot of people are declaring 2018 to be the year of the woman candidate since in almost all contested Democratic primaries female candidates have been victorious. The problem is that many of those districts are ruby red and it is difficult to see any Democrat winning in November. Remember until you win the general you haven’t won anything. While I am among the many who would like to see more women in office the bigger problem I see is that if a lot of female candidates lose in November women in general will become less politically active. Many women don’t much care about Party labels and are voting Democratic based on issues not the “D”. (Candidates keep that in mind!) If they see what they perceive as an impenetrable glass ceiling they may go back to the sideline which is terrible for progressive causes; (more about that in a future article.)

Before we draw any conclusion from a primary’s results we have to look at what type of primary it is. First off is it in a competitive district; if so then the quality of candidate matters. The thing I’m seeing in the early results is that too often the Democrat is too far left; or the Republican too far right to challenge in a somewhat purple district in November. This is a product of low voter turnout and polarization.

The next thing I like to look at is the format of the primary. Is it open, closed or semi-open? In a closed primary you have to be a member of the Party in order to vote in that Party’s primary. If you are an independent then you have forfeited your right to vote in any primary. If you are a member of a minor Party and there are no contested offices you don’t have a primary.

An open primary is just that – open. Anyone can vote in the primary of their choice. Some states do not have partisan registration so they can only have open primaries. There are a few derivations of this theme where every candidate is lumped together regardless of their Party and the top two end up running off in November.

I live in North Carolina which has a semi-open primary. Democrats can only vote in the Democratic primary; Republicans in the Republican primary. Unaffiliated registered voters may vote in either but not both.

I happen to prefer the closed primary system because I feel if you want a voice in selecting a Party’s candidate you should be a member of that Party. Many who agree with my conclusion do so because they fear the “Operation Chaos” factor. That is when a voter votes to run the weakest candidate to oppose who they intend to vote for in November; sort of a sabotage mission. Fortunately “Operation Chaos” has never really had an impact, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t in the future.

I think too much is being read into voter turnout to date. Whether a race is contested or not is a huge factor in turnout. Americans in general do a lousy job of voting in primaries. If the marquee race(s) are not generating excitement or publicity and the winner appears to be a forgone conclusion Americans tend to sit home.

It fun to try to analyze the results but before you do make sure you know a lot about the race in question. Chances are there is a lot more noise than signals!

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