Experimenting with Fully Open Primaries
Since 2010, conservative Republicans have gridlocked government, creating the most toxic political environment since the antebellum era. Critical to that tactic has been pay-to-play, enabling staunchly conservative donors to empower party activists including tea partiers holding views outside the mainstream. These activists fight well above their weight because they unduly influence party primaries, selecting candidates in their own image. Recent research suggests that the overrepresentation of right-wing extremists in candidate selection can be muted by making primaries nonpartisan.
With median voters more centrists on most issues than party partisans, expanding the primary electorate has an intuitive appeal as a remedy, but supporting evidence has been sparse – until now. California instituted a full-blown nonpartisan primary system in time for the 2012 elections in which the top two vote recipients regardless of party move on to compete head-to-head in November. The evidence is in from the first session of the 113th Congress and NOTT (Nonpartisan Top Two) had a dramatic impact in moderating votes of the California Republican delegation in 2013.
Held constitutional by the Supreme Court in 2008 (Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, et. al.), NOTT primaries are utilized only in Louisiana, Washington and California. The enormous size and political diversity of the California delegation offered a perfect control groups to test the open primary hypotheses. As it turned out, while Congress has become increasingly polarized, the Republican Congressional delegation from California in 2013 resisted that trend. Statistics compiled by the author from National Journal ratings reveal that the California Republican delegation in 2013 shifted notably toward the center compared to the voting record of all other members of Congress and compared to their own votes during the previous 111th (2009/2010) and 112th Congresses (2011/2012). Redistricting reduced California’s Republican delegation in 2013, but eleven of the remaining party members have served in Congress since at least 2009. And the reaction of these seasoned lawmakers to the new NOTT primary system in the 2012 election caused their very conservative voting records compiled in prior years to morph into moderation.
Congressional Republicans Moved Sharply Toward The Center
Most of the shifts were quite sizable. Specifically, the median California Congressional Republican National Journal ranking moved from the quite conservative 85th percentile in 2009/2010 to the 60th percentile in 2013. Put another way, the voting behavior of these political veterans moved from a median position analogous to the 369th most conservative member of the House in 2009/2010 (and 329th in 2011/2012) to one comparable to the 263d most conservative in 2013. The NOTT system saw these career politicians rather dramatically recentering their actual voting behavior by 25 percentage points. Most Congressional Republicans from the central valley and northern and southern California are now voting like moderates representing New England.
The reaction among Democratic politicians to these two reforms was more muted. Those veteran Democrats in office from 2009-2013 moved toward the center in 2013 as well. But their shift was small, from a median position at the 11th percentile (quite liberal) in 2009/2010 to the 14th percentile in 2013.
Breaking the Grip of Tea Partiers on Republican Primaries
NOTT shifted conservative Republicans significantly toward the center, arguably reducing polarization just as political scientists such as Norm Ornstein have long speculated. But questions remain. Even though the results are from California with the largest state Congressional delegation, any one state cannot be dispositive. The sample size is small, drawn from just one year (2013) following one election (2012), and only time will tell is this shift is sustained. Moreover, California also installed a nonpartisan redistricting system in 2011 which may have lowered partisanship in the new Congressional districts. Recentering may hinge on both reforms rather than NOTT alone.
Republicans are held accountable by political scientists for much of the polarization afflicting government now. But at least among the California Republican Congressional delegation, the NOTT system appears to neutralize centrifugal forces that have been pushing them away from the center. NOTT may be a surprisingly powerful tool for reducing polarization and should be at or near the top of any reform agenda designed to ease the grip of powerful donors on candidate behavior and gridlock.