Maybe Moderates Can Win Primaries

19 Oct, 2017


Maybe Moderates Can Win Primaries

The number of “safe” House and Senate seats has been increasing in recent years, leading to a heightened attention to primary elections. When seats are comfortably controlled by one of the two major parties, the winner of the general election in November is actually determined months before, when the dominant party picks its nominee. A great deal of research has been done about general elections but relatively little about primaries, where partisanship is a nonfactor. All this makes a new study by Elizabeth Simas of the University of Houston noteworthy.

Published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, the findings challenge the widely accepted notion that only highly ideological candidates can win primaries, though this often is the case. But Simas finds that ideological concerns, while important, can give way to other considerations. Voters in primaries take electability into account, too, and will be favorably disposed to candidates who seem electable, even when they are not simpatico on all the issues.

The tactical implications seem obvious. As Simas writes — in exquisitely academic prose — “when subjects are explicitly primed to consider ideology, portraying a candidate as the most likely to win the general election does provide a significant boost to that candidate and can increase the probability of support from a subject who is more ideologically proximate to another candidate.”

All About the Base?

In other words, extremists won’t always win primaries. Playing to the base need not always work. Even if voters “are just blindly jumping on the bandwagon,” hoping to back a winner, the research suggests “that the electoral chances of these more moderate potential candidates may be better than they think and that the continued polarization of Congress may not be as inevitable as is often implied.”

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