Chuck Schumer Gets Primaries All Wrong

In an op-ed today endorsing the California two-two primary system, Senator Chuck Schumer gets so many things wrong, in so many ways, that I can’t get to it all in one post.

I’ll stick, for now, to the most basic and pragmatic reason Schumer is wrong: the reform he trumpets wouldn’t achieve what he says it would.

The New York Democrat is upset about partisan polarization. But the top-two primary system doesn’t produce less polarization. FiveThirtyEight’s Harry Enten has a nice review of some of the academic literature. The evidence doesn’t support any kind of moderating effect.

Instead, political scientists have found that parties are adapting to the rules and finding ways to get the candidate they want anyway. That’s roughly analogous to what happened in presidential nominations after reform took power away from the national convention and placed it in state primaries and caucuses. At first, the results were random and unstable. Over time, however, the party actors adapted, and learned to use the “invisible primary” period to compete for and coordinate over the nomination. By the time the voters get involved, the parties send powerful cues about which candidate or candidates are acceptable, and the others either drop out or have little chance.

The primaries and caucuses aren’t exactly rigged; formally, they still have the power to nominate, and its technically possible for a Herman Cain or Dennis Kucinich to win. Moreover, if party actors — the politicians, formal party officials and staff, campaign and governing professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups and party-aligned partisan media who have the biggest say in nomination politics — don’t reach a consensus, the parties and caucuses choose between the finalists, as Democrats did in 2008. But realistically, if a consensus can be reached among those leaders, then party voters are going to get the message and go along.

Multicandidate, one-round primary elections are already a fairly random and unstable way to choose nominees. Add the further complication of “top-two,” and the parties are going to have even more incentive to settle their differences before the vote instead of accepting whatever outcome emerges. And since party actors are polarized and more ideological than rank-and-file voters, it’s no surprise that these primaries will produce winners who act at least as polarized as those who come out of regular primaries.

Schumer points to post-reform California as a success story (his other example, Louisiana, is hardly a cradle of good government). Yet as Seth Masket noted a while ago, California is an example of how smoothly united government can run. Since the one-party government elected in a 2012 landslide has the Democrats in charge, it’s no wonder that Schumer likes the results. But if that’s the case, what he likes is the results of party polarization: unified ideological parties given full control of government get a lot done. Top-two had nothing to do with it.

Schumer also gets wrong the role of gerrymandering (no, it doesn’t cause polarization) and big money (no, it wasn’t caused by Citizens United and other recent court decisions). Not to mention that his history is all wrong — the proliferation of presidential primaries were in fact a consequence of McGovern-Fraser reforms, but primaries for other offices preceded that by about 50 years. And then there’s the question of polarization itself, which is far more complicated than he lets on. But for now, the basic point is that the top-two reform just doesn’t eliminate, or even moderate, partisan polarization.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

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Jonathan Bernstein

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