In Mississippi, crossover Democrats may have tipped the balance in favor of incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran over a Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
In Mississippi, crossover Democrats may have tipped the balance in favor of incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran over a Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Primary elections have been in the news, both because of a hotly contested nomination battle among Mississippi Republicans for a Senate seat, and because some reformers are pushing changes in how these races are conducted (Seth Masket summarizes that agenda). The Mississippi case, in which crossover Democrats may have tipped the balance in favor of incumbent Republican Senator Thad Cochran over a Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel, raises questions about who should vote in primaries. I’ll take these on, Q & A style.

Q: What’s the point of primary elections?

A: Primary elections are usually a way for political parties to formally choose their candidates.

Q: But not always, right? What about California’s “top two” primary, in which all candidates run in one preliminary election and the top two finishers advance to a final round?

A: California’s system and other similar methods strip parties of one means of nominating candidates. As Seth notes, parties have fought back by finding other, informal ways of deciding which candidate to support.

Q: If primaries are supposed to be for parties to choose their own candidates, shouldn’t all primaries be closed to anyone but party members?

A: Not necessarily. Parties may have very good reasons to open their primaries to all voters. For example, they might believe that voting in the primary will encourage people to stick with the winner in the general election. Or that an open primary will produce a nominee more likely to win in November.

Q: But aren’t they exposing themselves up to a huge risk of a raid by the other party?

A: All the research on primary elections comes to the same conclusion: normally, it just doesn’t matter much whether they are open or closed. And to the extent that outsiders participate, they’re far more likely to vote sincerely (for the candidate they would prefer to represent them) than they are to vote for the weakest general-election candidate as a ploy to try to steal the general. But Mississippi notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem to make much difference, perhaps because most independents are less likely to vote anyway.

Q: Why primaries in the first place?

A: Political scientist Alan Ware did the research on this. Parties previously used caucus/convention systems, but those had a big problem: There was no way to enforce the decision. What if the losers hold their own convention, and declare their candidate as the real party choice?

The two-part solution? First, arrange for government-printed general-election ballots with slots reserved for the official nominee. Then, use government-run primary elections to remove any ambiguity. As a bonus, government-run primaries also moved the expense and the hassles from party to government responsibility.

Q: OK, the states run primaries because of historical happenstance, and it doesn't matter much whether primaries are open or closed. But beyond that, shouldn’t parties -- which are, at their core, private political associations -- be able to organize themselves as they please, including choosing the rules for selecting their candidates?

A: Yes, but. Political scientists have long believed that parties are required for democracy. My argument, however, is that it isn't enough to say “the political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties.” For democracy to really work, parties must themselves be democratic; most importantly, they must be permeable. In a sense, parties are conspiracies of groups seeking to control nations through democratic means. To have functioning democracy, that “conspiracy” must be open to all interested, including the possibility that newcomers can affect the terms of the conspiracy.

Parties want government to operate their nominating process? Then it’s reasonable for government to ask for something in return -- for parties to be open. If more people want to be Republicans (or Democrats), then the parties should have to allow them in, and the government should ensure that they do.

That doesn’t require open primaries (which are about allowing people who don’t want to be in a party to influence party decisions), and it certainly doesn’t make the “top two” primary a good idea.

Any other questions? Leave them in comments or elsewhere.

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net.