What the Evidence Says about Strategic Voting in Open Primaries

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    “Don’t blame me for the Republican President, I didn’t vote for him.  I mean, well, I did, but it was a strategic vote, not a vote vote.”Report

  2. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    California bollixed up your #1 assumption.  Reading the rest of the post now 🙂Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

      The evidence, albeit a bit scanty, seems to suggest that open primaries don’t promote strategic voting as much as they expand and moderate the primary electorate. This suggests they are in fact achieving their intended purpose.

      That was my current understanding.  Nice to have corroboration.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Pat, the California primary system was a legislative referendum, correct?  I’m wondering how much support it got from the majority party in the legislature to put it on the ballot?  E.g., did the majority party think perhaps they might squeak in two of their own candidates into the general election?  Or perhaps the leaders of both parties in Sacramento assumed their dominance would assure them of the top 2 spots anyway?

      I’m loathe to relinquish a good assumption until I understand the issue better.  That said, it’s best understood as a general rule, not a law of nature.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

        I’m wondering how much support it got from the majority party in the legislature to put it on the ballot?

        Both of the political parties campaigned against the open primary.  I don’t know how much money they gave, but the Democratic Party of California and the Republican Party of California both showed up prominently in the “Hells NO” column of all the voter guides and whatnot.

        That sort of supports your conclusion, though, anyway.

        They will not vote against their own interests, so it is unlikely they would vote in favor of an open primary if they believed there was substantial likelihood of strategic voting that could hurt their party’s interests.

        IMO, it’s less a question of them worried about practical hurting of their party’s interests, and more of a case of them not wanting the general electorate to have as much of a say in their intra-party platform construction.  Because typically the party leaders have an idea about where they want the party to go.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko says:

        IIRC, California’s open primary was a referred initiative, which generated substantial splits in the traditional support and funding groups of both major political parties. It only got out as part of a huge compromise to win over moderate votes to a particualrly nasty budget battle. Read more here!Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:


          Thanks for the link. I haven’t been following Cali politics as closely as I used to.  I know there’s a lot of bizarro stuff, so it’s good to get a bit more info on it.

          May I object to the bastardized phrase, “referred initiative,” though? 😉Report

  3. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    Very thoughtful post, and plenty to chew on–thanks!Report

  4. Avatar Kim says:

    Okay, I’ve got something for you! PA — closed primaries. But one month before, you can still sign up. Republican voters dwindled dramatically in 2008’s primary — I like to believe they were sincere (hard to tell, when there wasn’t much policy diff between Hill and Bama).

    BUT, the end result of that was a STRATEGIC victory, for the REPUBLICANS — because nobody wanted to get back into the Republican party (too lazy, methinks). So, you have Toomey — may we generously call him the Senator from Saudi Arabia? getting elected — when he’s too radical for the state and unlikely to survive an on-year election.

    dunno what this says, but I think it says that open primaries may just formalize what some closed primaries do with a good deal more effort. Is that effort worth it? Discuss!Report

  5. Avatar BSK says:

    I was talking about this with my mother the other night.  It is a bit off-topic but I think it is related enough to merit posting (and if JH doesn’t like it, he can bite me!)…

    If we go with closed primaries, then we are allowing the political parties themselves to determine who votes in the primary.  What if a political party comes up with absurd criteria for membership?  Could Party X say that all members must be property owners?  Or over 35?  Or college graduates?  What are the rules for a political party controlling membership?Report

    • Avatar North says:

      Well BSK, political parties do still have to draw voters and the like.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      Once upon a time parties were considered wholly private organizations, and could discriminate as much as they want.  Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, almost no organizations are “wholly” private in that sense anymore.  So anyone who wants to register for a particular party can, and in that sense the parties don’t determine who votes even in a closed primary.

      About the only way to run a discriminatory party in the sense you’re talking about is t keep it informal.  Once you register your party with the state, or organize it as a legal corporation, your legal capacity to discriminate is gone.

      So get those nasty ideas of forming a political party of only middle-aged property-owning college grads out of your head.Report

    • Avatar BSK says:


      You bring up a great practical reason for why engaging in such tactics would be wrongheaded, which was not a way I was thinking about it but is a great perspective.  Thanks.


      Thanks for the legal wrangling.  It is good to know that such tactics are prohibited.


      It is kind of a tricky thing to think about.  On the one hand, it would seem appropriate for a political party to have SOME control over those who become members.  There needs to be some common ideology that unites the members.  On the other hand, how do you do this?  North’s idea, which is essentially an appeal to the “market” in a way, seems the best.  I could register as and consider myself a member of Party X, but if my ideas and values have little overlap with the common ideas and values of Party X, I likely won’t stay a member for long.  And, if I do, it is likely to my own detriment.Report

  6. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    I have never believed that “strategic voting” took place on any kind of a significant level. Frankly, I don’t think most voters are smart enough to pull it off, at least not in the amounts in which it would make any difference. If someone did try it, this would be easily detectable, and the rules of elections are such that it would be unlikely to ever really make a significant impact.

    For instance, in 2008, Rush Limbaugh tried to sponsor “Operation Chaos” on the theory that Republicans crossing over to vote in the Democratic primary would prolong a divisive primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama; this was an ill-concieved idea from the start, failed to take into account the train wreck that the economy was becoming, and most importantly, it never really happened. There is a claim that it helped deliver Ohio and Texas to Clinton, but given the Democrats’ strict proportional delegate selection system (and Texas’ combination of primary and caucus delegate allocation rules) the actual impact on the nomination process was at best minimal.Report

    • Avatar Mike says:

      I believe in the Open Primary.

      Why? Because where I live, half of the races are uncontested come the general election, and strangely about 2/3 of the uncontested races seem to be Republicans while the other 1/3 are Democrats. Only by voting in BOTH primaries am I going to actually have my vote count for anything. Closed Primaries + Uncontested general elections are one way the two-party system disenfranchises voters.

      Closed Primaries also screw third parties even harder – if you have a “new” party, chances are you aren’t running anyone for every single race. And in a location where the ballot is dominated one side or the other and full of uncontested or weakly “token contested” elections, your best chance to make your vote count is in the primaries. Thus, the Republicans or Democrats in a “closed primary” state get to pad their registration numbers while the third parties are choked off.

      Fuck the closed primary. It’s about disenfranchisement, nothing else.Report