What's the point of a primary?

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Steven Griffin writes:
Yesterday, the NYT had an editorial on the presidential primary mess. The system has been falling apart because of the desire of states to have early primaries. The Times mentioned some prominent solutions, which basically involve being fairer to all states. Funny, I thought the point of the nominating process was to select a candidate who has the greatest chance of winning the general election. Surely some thought should be given as to how you could design the process so as to maximize the chances this will happen. Perhaps this is asking too much of careful design, but there is a possible solution to be considered. Leaving aside the knotty question of the sensitive feelings of Iowa and New Hampshire, suppose you focused on the most important states defined in terms of the general election.

The premise here seems basically wrong. The purpose of the primaries is to decide who will represent the party in the general using whatever criteria seem most appropriate to the members of the party. As a degenerate case, there are many districts where the winner of one or the other primary is more or less guaranteed to win the general election, say if the district is 2/3 one party. Certainly, in such cases it doesn't make sense to have a primary system which chooses candidate X, with a .999 chance of winning the general, rather than candidate Y, whose positions are much more attractive to the party, but who has only a .99 chance of winning the general.

In general, any method of choosing a general election candidate is going to be a balance between electability and how much one likes that candidate's positions as measured against the other potential candidates. It's not clear that the primary system really needs to be specifically designed to be slanted towards the median voter.

2 Comments

The primary system in the united states is far more borked than just that, with some states requiring that members of all parties be able to vote in all primaries, on top of party membership being little more than a paper affiliation and source of strategic voting to begin with.

You are right, and the NYT reporter is wrong.

The primary system is not designed to be slanted towards the median voter. The primary system usually selects the candidate capable of rallying support from the local party faithful. This support is not associated with the median voter, who shifts their support from party to party based on a number of factors.

Searching through APSR and AJPS articles on median voter theory should uncover enough papers to help you sort through the issue.

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