Primary Voters Have Plenty to Think About

(Bloomberg View) -- The Illinois primaries are today, with the biggest contests including tough gubernatorial races in both parties and a liberal challenge to moderate member of the House Dan Lipinski.

When it comes to primary elections, we're asking a lot from voters. General elections are usually easy for most of us. Whether we realize it or not, we're automatically voting for our party. That's not because partisanship is some sort of mindless abdication of responsibility; party affiliation delivers an enormous amount of information in a tiny package. 

And that's really necessary in a system that features frequent elections, federalism and separated institutions sharing powers. Even if we stripped a lot of things from ballots (beginning with judicial candidates, please), the whole premise of federalism is that we need to vote for at least one legislator and one executive at the federal, state and local levels; in reality, most of us vote for multiple legislative and executive offices at those levels, and there are often two, three or more overlapping local jurisdictions such as county, city and various special districts. That's a lot of elections, and a lot of candidates! Parties help us get through general elections fairly easily.

Not so with primaries, where there's no equivalent of party affiliation to give us that burst of information. Candidates try to supply us with reasons to vote for them or against others, and party actors and organized interests also try to help, but for a lot of lower-level offices, most of us just aren't going to put in the effort to gather all of that and evaluate it. Sometimes it works: I suspect a lot of pro-choice voters in Illinois's 3rd District have learned that pro-choice groups are backing Lipinski's challenger, Marie Newman, because he votes against abortion rights. But often, it's hard to get good information even if a voter wants to try.

And while many top-of-the-ballot contests do have enough polling to help voters, the opposite is true of almost all down-ballot races. Democrats voting for governor in Illinois are choosing between what appear to be three major candidates out of six on the primary ballot. Suppose a sharp voter has done her work and decided she doesn't like J.B. Pritzker and that she would like to vote for whichever of Daniel Biss or Chris Kennedy has the best chance to defeat him. Unfortunately, there's practically zero reliable polling, and so our hard-working voter is stuck guessing. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, the House district where I live in Texas had four Democratic candidates, 18 Republicans, and as far as I know no public polling. Good luck with that.

Primary elections seem to work by responding to the preferences of party actors more often than not; see Hans Hassell's new "The Party's Primary" (or listen to him discuss it here). So they aren't necessarily a bad way to select candidates. It's just a reminder that we throw a lot at voters. 

1. Angela X. Ocampo and John Ray at Mischiefs of Faction on Latino candidates and potential candidates for office, and the complexities of networked parties. Fascinating.

2. Molly Reynolds at Brookings has something resembling a bit of optimism about the new attempt to reform the budget process

3. Good Seth Masket item making the case for closed primaries. But while I think the case for closed primaries is theoretically strong, in practical terms it doesn't seem to make much of a difference one way or another; there just aren't all that many of those "I strongly want to participate in primaries but refuse to join a party" folks, and they don't necessarily all vote the same way when they have the opportunity. The only other thing I'd say is that while I think parties should have the right to exclude non-members from their nomination decisions, in practice many parties have preferred open primaries anyway, and that's fine, too. On the whole, there's just too much fuss over this issue.

4. Missed this one last week, but it's still good: Khalilah L. Brown-Dean on activism while coping with all the political news. Good whether you agree with her policy preferences or not.

5. Jonathan Chait lays out the case that President Donald Trump will fire special counsel Robert Mueller. Plausible! But liberals have had Trump ready to fire Mueller for almost a year now, and it hasn't happened. Which certainly doesn't mean it won't. Chait isn't wrong about the reporting that suggests Trump is increasingly determined to ignore anyone's advice, or about the obvious fact that Trump inflicts damage on himself all the time, so normal incentives clearly don't always hold. 

6. Steve Vladeck at Lawfare on what Congress could do now to protect Mueller.

7. Wow, California's top-two system is terrible. Good reporting from Emily Cadei on how Democrats are trying to deal with it. This a problem for both parties, with Republicans trying not to get shut out of the November ballot on the Senate and gubernatorial contests.

8. And don't miss an important Upshot item on race and economic opportunity from Emily Badger, Claire Cain Miller, Adam Pearce and Kevin Quealy.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

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