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Saturday, May 30, 2009

Conventional Wisdom and General Elections

Chap Petersen has an intriguing post on his Ox Road South blog. In it Chap demonstrates, by examining the results of elections going back to 1992, that the party that holds primaries eventually ends up winning the general election more often than not. To be sure, it's not foolproof and doesn't happen in every election. In fact, during the first few of years in the early 2000s, when the Democrats switched from conventions to primaries, they continued to lose, especially at the national level. But eventually by 2006, Democrats began to win elections.

During that time, the Republicans, in a reversal of strategy, went from an open primary system for picking their candidates to closed conventions. That also reversed their fortunes in the general election. Here is Chap's conclusion:
Over the past twenty years, the parties which select their nominees by primary generally win in general elections. That result does not necessarily occur immediately. For example, it took two years after the Dem primary in 04 for the results to sink in and really be utilized.

However, by 2006, the Democrats had a much better idea where their potential voters lived and how to reach them. This process then exploded in 2008, when nearly a million people came to vote for Hillary or Obama. That list was crucial for organizing the state for Obama in the general campaign.

Conventions are less costly and limit participation to party regulars. There are arguments for and against that. But the record is clear that primaries, in the long term, produce the winners.

I am going to expand on this. But first an observation, most politically engaged Virginians are aware of the commonwealth's conventional wisdom that the party that wins the White House loses the Virginia's governor's mansion the following year. One reason put forth for this is that by the following year, disillusionment sets in with the policies of the White House, so the Virginia electoral results act as a harbinger of the mid-term Congressional elections. Historically, the party in control of the presidency usually loses Congressional seats at the two year mark as well and for the same reason.

But the difference caused by holding a primary versus a closed convention might upset that bit of conventional wisdom as well. Let me add quickly that predicting results is always risky business, even if you claim a crystal ball. Since I'm no psychic, this is only guess work.

There could, however, be a logical reason that an open primary leads to success, especially in local and state elections. To start with, you get a wider cross section of voters picking the candidate, so you end up with a more moderate candidate who already appeals more to voters in a general election.
On the other hand, the problem with a convention is that it favors the choice of the party's most passionate partisans, those who are the most ideological - that's true whether we're talking about the Democratic or Republican Party. But right now, the Republicans seem to be particularly concerned with ideological purity and litmus tests. That could bode ill for them come a general election when you've got to tack to the center.

Another advantage of the primary system for choosing a candidate is that you get a far more accurate voter list to work from for the general election. You get lists of voters who have already come out and voted for a Democrat. In a small turnout election (and even the governor's race may well be a far smaller turnout than last year's blow out presidential race), you want to effectively target your voters and get them out. You don't want to spend your energy and time having to first figure out who they are. A good database from the primary gives you a one up on that.

There are some good reasons for holding conventions instead, and some people dislike the primary system. The strongest objection to open primaries is that too often members of the opposition party can vote and game the system to pick the weakest candidate, making it easier for them to beat in the general election.

One way to counter that is to have voter registration by party and closed primaries, limited only to members of one party. After all, if one is choosing the Democratic candidate, there is no reason why it shouldn't be limited just to registered Democrats.

Independents would still be able to register as such and vote in the general election. But they wouldn't be able to choose a party's candidate, whether Republican or Democrat. That has the advantage of getting some Independents who lean Democratic or Republican to get off the fence to declare for one or the other party.

But allowing Independents to vote in the primary also is a good way to figure out which of them actually lean your way. It too could be viewed as good for party building and for aiding GOTV efforts.

Lots of pros and cons here. But I think the good senator from the 34th District is on to something.

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