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Competitive Primaries Are Good for Parties

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Apr 4, 2008

Recently, Governor Phil Bredeson proposed a June Democratic superdelegate primary so the party could settle on a nominee and enter the convention united in its task to win the White House. Implicit in his proposal, Governor Bredeson assumes that a protracted nomination fight divides the party and makes it difficult to win the general election. This assumption finds clear support in a recent Gallup Poll indicating that 28% of Hillary Clinton supporters would not support Barack Obama and 19% of Obama supporters would not support Clinton in November.

However, contrary to conventional wisdom, competitive primaries only divide the party in the short term. The focus on the general election rallies activists and voters as they focus on the challenge from the opposite party. Moreover, competitive primaries yield better candidates by testing campaign messages, creating battle tested campaigns, and focusing on the candidate and his or her message.

First, nomination campaigns are naturally divisive – until a nominee is chosen. It’s not surprising that a shared commitment to a candidate leads supporters to become intensely loyal to their group – the in-group – and hostile toward their competitors – the out-group. Thus, some believe it may be difficult for either group to set aside their hostile feelings when the nomination ends.

Once the nomination struggle is over though, the in-group and out-group changes. The in-group becomes the party and the out-group becomes the opposite party. It helps that the nominee of one’s own party is ideologically closer to supporters of the losing candidate than the nominee of the opposing party. This ideological proximity leads these activists to rally around the nominee and work for his or her election.

This transition is easiest for voters who are mostly passive receivers of information and invest comparatively little in their vote choice. The transition is more difficult for activists who work on the losing campaigns. However, the commitment to certain issues and/or the party carries over as activists work for the nominee, though at lesser levels than their favored primary candidate, or the party.

This can be most clearly seen in the Republican primaries. During the campaign, polls consistently showed Republicans and conservatives less supportive of John McCain vis-à-vis Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani. However, once McCain wrapped up the nomination, Republicans and conservatives stopped comparing McCain to his primary opponents and started comparing him to Clinton and Obama. Not surprisingly, polls now show that McCain has the support of 90% of Republicans. And just like Republicans, once the Democratic nomination is over, Democrats will rally around their nominee due to their commitment to end the Bush years, pass universal health care, and begin a withdrawal from Iraq.

Just as important, competitive primaries improve candidates and their campaigns. First, competitive primaries allow candidates to test different campaign themes to find the most compelling and inclusive message. For example, Obama’s original “change” message appealed mostly to the affluent, liberals, and the young. However, the Clinton challenge has led him to expand his change message to appeal to more working class voters.

Second, competitive primaries create battle tested candidates and organizations. While the Jeremiah Wright controversy threatened to derail the Obama campaign, his widely lauded speech showed Obama’s ability to deflect attacks and neutralize a potential weakness. In addition, the ups and downs of the campaign resulting from Clinton’s New Hampshire, Ohio, and Texas victories to her pledge to fight until the end forces the campaign to become more nimble and adapt to the political environment. Finally, the candidates are recruiting new people to the party and building organizations in all 50 states, including states that Democrats have not seriously contested in years. This provides both a pool of future candidates and an infrastructure for the party to build upon to make those states more competitive this election and in years to come.

Third, competitive primaries focus the media attention on the party and its candidates which helps to spread the party’s message. The closeness and historical nature of the Clinton-Obama race has dominated news coverage, drowned out the Republican message, and indirectly promoted the Democratic message on health care, the economy, the environment, education, and Iraq. This media attention helps set the agenda for the fall campaign on more Democratic friendly turf.

So while competitive primaries can be disruptive, there are obvious benefits. Mainly, a better prepared and more seasoned candidate with a battle tested organization. That may result in the next divisive contest among Democrats to be about seating at the Inauguration.

Article orginally appeared in The Jackson Sun on March 28, 2008