Voters may find themselves in a long list of candidates as they vote to vote in the primaries. In most cases, these are the primary winners-take-alls. The one who gets the most votes will represent his party in November.
On June 7, 2022, the 7th Congressional District of New Jersey had seven candidates in the GOP Primary Ballot. Thomas Keane Jr. received 45.9% of the vote and 80% of the ballots count when the Associated Press declared him the winner. In Montana, five candidates competed in the June 7 GOP primary in the first congressional district. With 78% of the ballots counted, Ryan Zinke was leading with 41.4% of the votes and Al Olszewski had 40%.
There was a difference this year from primaries a decade ago: Data from the Center for Election Science, a nonprofit nonprofit focused on voting reform, indicates that in primaries contesting elections, the number of candidates has been increasing since 2010. That increase has important implications for the quality of candidates and the views they represent.
Each additional candidate who receives a vote reduces the number of votes required to secure the nomination. With many candidates the results of primaries are unpredictable and can result in excessive, inexperienced or controversial candidates who do not really represent the majority of the electorate. And a fringe candidate winning the primary and advancing to the general election could mean a risky candidate for his party.
The average of those contesting a primary for a seat in the US House of Representatives rose from 5.2 candidates in 2010 to 7.3 candidates in 2020. This flooding of the field can be attributed to a number of factors, including the role of technology: it is relatively easy to land on the ballot, and candidates can promote themselves and solicit funds via social media.
As a political scientist in Missouri, I am closely following this crowd of the fray in our US Senate race. Here, the GOP is reckoning with the presence of disgraced former Governor Eric Greetens in a packed primary field of 21 candidates.
The rush of fields is not limited to Congress candidates. There were 17 candidates in the GOP presidential primary in 2016, while Democrats fielded 28 presidential candidates in 2020.
While the field began to clear for Joe Biden after the February 2020 South Carolina primary, eight months before the general election, Donald Trump won the primary in March 2016, garnering nearly 40% of the vote.
These congested areas do not always have the kind of results that create fear among party leaders of a general election disaster. For example, scandal-stricken Rep. Madison Cawthorne of North Carolina, who failed to gain the support of mainstream Republicans in the primary race, was ousted after losing to a candidate who won 33.4% of the vote in an eight-person field. .
Competitive vs Secure Seats
Being an ideologically extreme candidate can be an advantage in partisan primaries. Although there is some controversy in political science as to how representative party primary voters belong to their parties, there is no debate as to whether they are an ideologically polarized subset of general voters.
Partisan primaries are more likely to crowd candidates in seats where the primary is the only real contest in the election. In these districts, it is a virtual certainty that a party’s candidate general will win if they can survive in the primary. The victorious primary candidate can often win a general election after winning a third or less of the primary vote.
This happened in the 13th Congressional District of Michigan in 2018.
Incumbent Representative John Conniers had resigned. A primary election was taking place for a Democrat to end his term. At the same time, the election of the Democratic candidate to run for a full term in Congress was also being held.
Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Jones were among other candidates in both races. Moderate Jones won a four-way race to compete for the remainder of Connors’ term. Tlaib, who is currently a member of the left-wing “squad”, won a six-way race to become the nominee for a full term. The presence of two additional candidates, who were nowhere close to winning, was upsetting the results.
National political party organizations may try to push voters and clear the primary sector in competing districts, but candidates are often left to their own devices in secure seats. National and state parties would prefer to focus on competitive races in which their side is likely to win, regardless of the nominee.
Where ideological extremists run into competing districts and win the primary, this may present a different problem. His candidacy with a low vote share in the general election could hurt the party of the extremists.
‘Extreme, naive or controversial’
Many primaries in recent memory have followed the pattern of elevating extreme, inexperienced or controversial primary candidates into party candidates.
In the November 2021 special election Democratic primary for the secure Democratic 20th Congressional District of Florida, Sheila Cherfilas-McCormick won by just five votes. Cherphilus-McCormick, who had never previously held an elected office, won 23.8% of the vote in a field with 10 other candidates after spending millions of her own money on the campaign. She won the general election.
This year, in the GOP House primary in Ohio’s 9th congressional district, JR Majewski won with 35.8% of the vote. Majewski, a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has never held a political position, defeated two state legislators in the primary.
In the GOP House primary in North Carolina’s first congressional district, election conspiracy theorist Sandy Smith won the primary with 31.4% of the vote, beating seven other candidates. One of her GOP contestants dug up allegations against Smith of abuse by multiple ex-husbands and their daughter. He has denied them.
In perhaps the most extreme example of a crowded primary field, the nonpartisan special primary election asks voters to contest through 48 candidates, from Sarah Palin to Santa Claus, to replace Representative Don Young in Alaska. Yes, Santa Claus. While rank-choice voting in a general election can lead to consensus, the wide-open primary has led to voters’ questions about how to ensure that one of their top choices reaches that level.
‘Nothing close to a majority’
While the quality of a candidate is somewhat in the eye of the beholder, the pattern here is political newcomers, often with strong ideological views, winning their parties’ nominations with nothing close to a majority.
On the one hand, contested primaries can be a symbol of a vibrant democracy. They may indicate that the candidates wish to join and are able to do so. They provide multiple perspectives for voters.
On the other hand, these congested areas can make it more difficult for voters to make choices. They have to make decisions with little knowledge of how other like-minded voters will vote. Coordinating strategic support for a specific candidate can be difficult.
With the division of votes among several candidates, a candidate may win with a small plurality, while being disliked by, or disconnected from, the larger primary electorate.
The runoff election in many southern primaries and rank-choice voting in Maine can help candidates meet a certain threshold of support. In most states, however, 2022, I believe, will provide countless examples, including the primary political scientist Henry E. Brady, described as a “poorly designed lottery”. With so many candidates on the ballot, the winners of those lotteries may not be voters.