Ornstein on the Jungle Primary

Steve Kornacki interviews Norm Ornstein, who supports the jungle primary (a primary election in which all candidates for elected office run in the same primary regardless of political party) experiment in California on the basis that it may reduce the chances for extremists to win primaries in one-party seats.

I’m not a fan. While I share Ornstein’s concerns about the dangers of the particular kind of polarization we have now, and I’d love to figure out a way to encourage parties to nominate better candidates, I’m skeptical of this particular method.

I do expect the parties to eventually figure out how to game the system to (once again) control nominations, but in the meantime I’d expect a quite a few failures and glitches. One of them happened to the Democrats yesterday, as I mentioned earlier today, in CA 31 — where now the Democrats will have no one on the ballot in a competitive seat. Republicans narrowly avoided a somewhat different problem in the Senate race, where they came a lot closer than they would have liked to nominate Orly Taitz.

Unpacking that a bit…there are a couple things I don’t like. One is that I don’t like that possibility of random effects. The other, though, is that I really do like parties to have the ability to control their nominations, as long as those parties are permeable. Even if I don’t like the results at times.

The other thing going on in California is that redistricting this time around was done by a nonpartisan commission instead of by the legislature, which drew up one of the more infamous bipartisan gerrymanders ever last time — a set of lines that prevented practically any partisan competition for U.S. House seats from California over the previous decade. The thing to appreciate here is that partisan gerrymanders, in which a party in charge draws the lines to maximize seats, often produces quite a bit of competition because maximizing seats usually means avoiding “wasting” votes by creating safe districts — which means that when populations shift over the decade, or when the party that drew the lines suffers a really bad election, many seats can come into play.

The thing is — I’m also against nonpartisan redistricting; I like having the politicians do it. But I am happy to see a few more competitive seats this time around.

Anyway, I should divide this up more carefully — there’s the theoretical questions of who should draw district lines and whether parties should own their own nomination decisions, and then the questions of what the likely results of these reforms will be over time. I think my general sense is that on grounds of democracy I’m against both these reforms in theory, but in terms of practical effects I’m undecided about the redistricting question (it probably depends a lot on state and specific factors, so there’s no overall answer), while I’m very skeptical of the case for positive effects from the two-top primary, but open to evidence that I’m wrong on that one.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.