Are open primaries a good idea? Depends on who you ask: Primary systems and polarization in light of the Mississippi Senate race

Mississippi’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate was not decided purely by Republican voters. While the specific number of “crossover” votes can be difficult to ascertain, the fact is that turnout in traditionally Democratic areas increased dramatically from the June 3 primary to the June 24 runoff (perk of all that national attention? Fantastic data journalism). It’s also true that incumbent Sen. Thad Cochran’s campaign targeted those voters between his 2nd-place finish to Tea Party-backed challenger Chris McDaniel on June 3 and his victory on June 24.


While legal in Mississippi, plenty will say that’s dirty politics. McDaniel certainly felt so. He refused to concede on election night, arguing that “the conservative movement took a backseat to liberal Democrats in Mississippi.”

“Before this race ends,” McDaniel said, “We have to be certain that the Republican primary was won by Republican voters.”

And while I felt McDaniel’s reality-defying non-concession speech only affirmed those who question the ability of ideologues to govern, I also felt a certain degree of sympathy. In the eyes of his supporters (and, to be fair, some of his detractors), his party’s nomination was stolen from him by people who wouldn’t consider themselves part of that party.

Primaries exist so that parties can select their nominee for a particular office. That used to be a decision left to party leaders (via conventions or caucuses), but because of a number of reasons – establishment-bias and corruption chief among them – popular votes through primary elections have become the nominating mechanism of choice. Because of their purpose, many states have closed primaries, meaning that the only people allowed to vote in a party primary are registered members of that party. “Semi-closed” primaries also allow for non-affiliated voters (independents) to participate. (A handy map of state primary rules is available here.)

Mississippi’s primaries are open, meaning that with each new election cycle, voters can choose anew which party’s primary they wish to vote in, regardless of personal political affiliation. In the case of the Cochran-McDaniel runoff, anyone who voted in the Democratic primary on June 3 was ineligible to vote in the Republican runoff (they already made their choice this cycle). But everyone else, including registered Democrats who stayed home on June 3, could participate.

Cristiano Ronaldo is confident you don’t want to play against him. // Jorge Silva, Reuters

Political scientists question just how often open primaries lead to strategic voting, and whether the effect is anything but marginal (see references below). Even the notion that open primaries moderate candidate choice – the reason many states adopted them – doesn’t have much empirical support. But on its face, it doesn’t quite jive with the intent of a primary. To use a timely, though imperfect illustration, imagine if World Cup rosters were selected by the rest of the world, including fans of opposing teams that also want to win. Would Americans want Cristiano Ronaldo to be part of the Portuguese squad? Would anyone other than the Portuguese? Probably not. Fortunately, only a coach with firm ties to Portugal selects that nation’s team, and he wants to field the best players possible.

However, that is not what crossover voters did in the Mississippi Senate race. They didn’t sabotage the primary by lending support to the candidate they were most likely to beat in a general election… that would have been McDaniel, hands down. So why did liberal voters want a Republican nominee that Democrats can’t beat?

Because in Mississippi, like so many other firmly entrenched states, party primaries are the election. That means people aren’t voting on the nominee; they’re voting on the de facto officeholder. Mississippi is the second-most conservative state in the union, according to Gallup. It hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential nominee since fellow Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976, and only one Democrat, Attorney General Jim Hood, currently holds statewide office. Using the Gallup data, if 100% of the state’s self-identified liberals and moderates (many of which might well lean Republican) show up to vote for Travis Childers, Cochran’s Democratic opponent (who, by the way, is pro-gun, anti-abortion, and anti-same-sex marriage), he’d still lose to Cochran by 1.5 points.

“There is no state more polarized than Mississippi,” wrote the New York Times’ Nate Cohn in describing the “nearly unbreakable bloc” of conservative voters that all but guarantee Republican candidates to defeat Democratic challengers.

So why did voters who wouldn’t normally identify with the Republican Party want a say in the Mississippi Senate runoff? Because they knew it was their only chance to pick their next Senator, and many of them preferred the seniority, federal monies, and (relative) ideological moderation that came with Cochran.

Or maybe they just wanted to be heard. I can relate. I’d much rather vote in a race that matters than choose between no-name candidates in a partisan minority who are simply going to be next to the slaughter. Count me as a fan of the “Top Two” primary system used by California, Louisiana, and Washington. In that system, every voter has the opportunity to vote for every qualifying candidate for each office. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. You might say that the end result for deeply red or blue states isn’t much different than an open primary, but it can mean everything when elections at different levels of government coincide.

For instance, whereas Republicans dominate state politics in Mississippi, the exact opposite is true in its urban areas. In the capital city of Jackson, there hasn’t been a Republican mayor since Leland Speed in 1945. Nobody wins anything these days without a “D” next to their names.

I wrote about this conundrum years ago for the Jackson Free Press. If I wanted a say in city governance, that meant voting in the Democratic primary. If I cared more about state leadership, I had to go Republican. Either way, by the time the general election rolled around in November, I would just be looking at a bunch of unopposed (or practically so) primary winners. It was like having half a ballot.

I understand why partisans like the idea of closed primaries. But because of uneven partisan distribution in so many states making June primaries more meaningful than November generals, the rest of us need them to be open if we’re to realistically have a voice at all.

Scholarly References
Bartels, L.M. (1988). Presidential primaries and the dynamics of public choice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Chen, K.P., & Yang, S.Z. (2002). Strategic voting in open primaries. Public Choice, 112, 1-30.
Kauffman, K.M., Gimpel, J.G., & Hoffman, A.H. (2003). A promise fulfilled? Open primaries and representation. Journal of Politics, 65(2), 457-476.
McGhee, E., Masket, S., Shor, B., Rogers, S., & McCarty, N. (2014). A primary cause of partisanship? Nomination systems and legislator ideology. American Journal of Political Science, 58(2), 337-351.

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