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Why Democrats in Republican States Should Consider a Hybrid Primary System

Updated on May 21, 2015

For State Democrats, the Blinders Need to be Removed

The link below is an article about the laughable job that the Tennessee Democratic Party did in selecting it's nominee for governor in 2014. As this article demonstrates, state elections for a minority Democratic party can be of little importance to the average voter. In such instances, voters often choose the name listed on the top of the ballot, as they have little knowledge of the candidates for such office. Political scientists have been aware of this phenomenon for quite some time. Marc Meredith of the University of Pennsylvania and Yuval Salant of Northwestern University examine this phenomenon's effects thoroughly in their article, On the Causes and Consequences of Ballot Order Effects, demonstrating how much of an impact it can have (although the events in Tennessee's 2014 gubernatorial race show enough empirical evidence to get the point across)1. In Tennessee, many involved Democrats are calling for a caucus system to avoid putting forth weak candidates against strong Republican coffers. If the Party hopes to have any success, it certainly needs to do something so that obviously unqualified candidates do not blemish the Party name. Yet, as a Democrat, a caucus system seems counterintuitive to the Democratic claim of being the party where every person has a voice- as caucuses are known to favor the political elites by being so time-consuming that Americans who are pressed for time during the day of the caucus are unable to participate. Primaries with early voting help address this issue, ensuring that virtually everyone who wants to vote can, but in the current system in which candidates are listed in alphabetical order, political parties set themselves up to choose candidates who would make better comedians than political figures due to the phenomenon described above.

What Can be Done?

It is evident that something needs to be done, but in the debate over the course of action, it seems that the solutions have been limited to having a traditional caucus or keeping the old primary system. Both of these systems are flawed, and limiting the course of action to only two options represents a sort of functional fixedness that needs to be eliminated. I believe that there are two key criteria that need to be addressed in selecting a mode of choosing candidates: First, the mode must ensure that all voices can be heard. Second, the mode must ensure that voter apathy does not make a laughing-stock of the Party by selecting obviously unqualified candidates. To address both of these criteria, I suggest that a caucus be held in which caucus voters vote on the order in which candidates appear on the primary ballot rather than strictly choosing who will be the Party nominee.

The Benefits of a Hybrid Primary System

In a hybrid system such as this, both criteria are addressed, as the ballot ordering phenomenon will favor candidates who are already shown to be strong by an informed caucus system, and it further ensures that every voter has a voice in the matter. Thus, if this hybrid system were chosen, parties could avoid much of the obvious infighting that would occur from changing from a primary to a caucus system. Furthermore, if a candidate who was not supported by the caucus wins the primary, the win would demonstrate the true strength of the candidate, as he or she was able to overcome the ballot ordering phenomenon to become the nominee. As a result, the Democratic Party could virtually ensure that a good candidate will be chosen every time without restricting itself to the possibility that a lesser-known candidate may prove to be an even better choice among a larger voter base- as those without the ballot order benefit in their favor would have to put in more work to obtain the Party nomination. In the forthcoming debate that will occur in Tennessee and elsewhere, the blinders must be removed, and creative options such as the one presented here should be explored.

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1 Meredith, M. – Salant, Y. (2013): On the Causes and Consequences of Ballot Order Effects, Political Behavior, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 175-197. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~marcmere/workingpapers/BallotOrder.pdf

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