Of Primary Importance

Believe it or not, a single vote can matter a whole lot. An election for a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates resulted in a tie this year, and the outcome might have tremendous consequences. Because that seat is also the one that determines party control of the lower house in the legislature, and because Medicaid expansion was a campaign issue, that one vote in that one district could determine future Virginians’ medical choices. There might exist a Virginian that wakes up one day with covered medical care all due to a single person casting a ballot, or they might not because one too many people stayed home that day.

It’s popular to not care about politics. Being indifferent, above it, or a proud independent may make you feel better, more impartial, or cleanlier than those actively in the battle, but it ultimately weakens your voice. You should care, because politics affects your life enormously. Laws dictate what you can purchase, who you can buy it from, where it’s sold, and how much it costs. Policy affects how much money is in your pocket, how fast it grows, and where you can invest it. Government shapes the activities you participate in, the areas where you’ll live, what your kids will learn in school, how healthy you’ll be, and how comfortably you’ll die. Behind the scenes in almost every decision you will ever make is a policy either limiting your choices or nudging you towards one. And the most reliable way you can change policy, and the decisions you’ll make in your life, is to vote.

But voting in the general election isn’t enough; in fact, it’s often too late. Politics in the United States has shifted over the last several decades into an especially partisan affair. Self-sorting and stickier party identification have combined to make primaries especially important. For many districts across the country, one party wins the seat over and over again. Thus, the real race for office is not a general election between a Republican or Democrat, but a primary battle among many members of the same party. Politicians (and their parties) have responded to this win-the-primary, win-the-seat environment by pandering almost exclusively to their base. Keeping the base happy prevents passionate, same-party candidates from jumping into primaries.

While the partisan shift might be new, it’s occurring with a backdrop of chronic abstention. Every U.S. election has an implicit, and incredibly popular, additional candidate on the ballot: no one. “Don’t care” would win most elections. Some countries, like Australia, have compulsory voting. The resulting difference between our countries is stark: even with their worst turnout in 90 years Australia’s ninety-one percent turnout dwarfs America’s fifty-ish. The primaries have even fewer voters; 2016’s election came close to a “record” high of thirty percent of registered voters. Throw in unregistered voters, and less than one-fifth of America voted in either of the 2016 Republican or Democratic primaries. Low turnout primaries often produce candidates the general population doesn’t want to vote for, and that was likely the case last year. While many factors contributed to the candidates’ nominations, limited primary participation probably helped turn the presidential election into a choice between the two most unpopular candidates in history. Sadly, this feeds back on itself, with unpopular choices leading to fewer Americans making a choice at all.

Powerful primaries, paired with high abstention rates, lead to election strategies focused myopically on turnout. Instead of the spirited debates of ideas taught in high school civics classes, with candidates racing back to the political middle to gain undecided voters or even draw cross-party votes, elections are a battle for turnout. Candidates strive only to pump up enthusiasm on their side with red-meat rhetoric, and hope their opponent is less inspirational to their own voters. This strategy is mostly ignored by mainstream news coverage, which remains stuck using the unstated assumption that everyone votes. “Obama-to-Trump” voters still dominate the analysis of the 2016 election, but Obama-to-Did-Not-Vote probably contributed to the result even more. Voters that switch allegiances are interesting and newsworthy, but the voters that stayed home probably made the difference.

Because the primary is what they fear most, and the general election depends on high enthusiasm among those already inclined to vote for them, elected politicians only listen to their party’s voters. A politician who wants to be re-elected needs to consider their base above all else, because those are the voters that put them there and the ones who will judge them in the next primary. Consider the current president. Despite overall approval ratings in the mid-thirties (historically low at this point in a term), Donald Trump has the broad support of a Republican Congress because their voters give him huge approval numbers. Packed town halls and protests carry little weight in a base-above-all-else strategy. No one wants to face an angry crowd, but when a single representative can have 900,000 constituents, it’s easy to find 2,000 upset enough to attend a town hall.

The passage of major legislation is likewise trending towards single-party affairs. With a large enough majority, and legislators only listening to their base, cross-party negotiations don’t happen. So the debates that shape policy and determine the final form of a bill aren’t between the parties at all, they’re within them. Suddenly it matters not only which party you send to Washington, but more importantly which kind of Republican or which kind of Democrat you send. In the last decade two major, sole-party efforts bear this consequence. Obamacare’s final form and its attempted repeal were both dramatically shaped by individuals within their party in ways that drastically changed the legislation. The primary is the only way to change who is at the negotiating table.

This is why you need to join a party. Party membership amplifies your voice in a way that mere voter registration does not. It unlocks the ability to participate in a primary. And the primary is where all the action is. The primary determines whether your candidate is hard-line or moderate, what direction they’ll move the party in, and how responsive they’ll be once they’re in office. In many races across the country, the candidates in those general elections run unopposed. 30–40% of state legislative seats across the country are uncontested; the primary winner is the de-facto legislator. Party membership and primary voting numbers are low. Your primary vote has never been more valuable, and all that’s required is to register with a party. So which party should you join?

There are many political parties in the United States, but for every intent and every purpose, there are only two. No person outside of the two main parties has been President since Millard Fillmore (a Whig) in the 1850s. The politicians that get elected to Congress outside the Republican-Democrat duopoly run as “independents,” unaffiliated with any party. But they are incredibly rare. In the post-war era, Congress has never had more than two people (out of 535 seats) that weren’t a member of the two major parties. There are several reasons for the stability of the two-party system. One is Duverger’s law, theorizing that the United States’ system of winner-take-all elections naturally lead to two-party dominance. Third parties, try as they might, get no credit for 5%, 10%, or 30% of the vote, causing voters to largely give up on supporting them. Third parties often play the role of spoiler as well, stealing votes from the other candidates that are similar to them, accidentally allowing the candidate least like them to win. Ralph Nader likely cost Al Gore Florida in 2000, Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party split 50% of the popular vote with President Taft in the 1912 election, and Maine has had two elections for governor in a row where a third party played spoiler. After much agonizing, Michael Bloomberg decided not to run in 2016 because he feared that his entry would only make it more likely for Donald Trump to win by splitting left-leaning votes. Third parties aren’t viable in the United States, and they don’t influence policy decisions. If you’re going to join a political party, you need to join the Republican or Democratic parties.

Which major party should you join? Up to you! There are all sorts of strategies. One option is to pick the one that is closest to your beliefs. Another is to pick the party that runs unopposed in your district. Or pick the party you like least and try to bend it closer to your views. There are no wrong answers here. Pick whichever one makes your primary vote most meaningful to you.

You should join a party and vote in primary elections because:

  • Politics determines the choices you and your loved ones can make.
  • Voting drives politics.
  • Primaries have become enormously important, sometimes more important than the general election.
  • Politicians listen more and more to primary voters each year.
  • Primaries are largely only available to party members.

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