American Primaries: Ideas over Entrenchment

Most progressives would agree that the American primary system is both a blessing and a curse. The Republican form of primarying is a blessing, and the curse is the lack of variety in serious Democratic candidates. The Tea Party has revolutionized the primaries by challenging established Republican politicians who aren’t conservative enough. This helps Democrats by divide and conquer but, and this may be the only time this is said, the Tea Party has it right.

They may cost their party some positions and drive the country more conservative, but the entire point of an elected democracy is competition. The Democrats are mainly playing it safe when it comes to primaries. This isn’t to say that there aren’t battles between Democrats because there are, but those occur in safe districts and states. Caution is shown in regions where Democrats won’t automatically win. It’s a smart strategy to keep numbers up, but doesn’t allow new politicians and ways of thought to enter the party.

The Republican primarying process has made the Democrats wary of engaging in costly battles that could cede wins to their opponents across the aisle. Cost is a huge part of the problem for primarying, but there is another interesting phenomena at work.

Stagnation instead of Progress:

When Republicans primary it almost always drives their party further right. Yet, for some reason, this ideological shift alludes Democrats. It has happened but on a much smaller and localized scale.

Many in this country think Obama and the Democrats are radical liberals but that’s untrue. Center-left is not radical, in fact, with the major shift towards conservatism, center-left now looks more like center-right in decades past. There are some progressive groups pressing for liberal challengers, but the Democratic National Committee shuns the idea which, I might add, is a shame.

Now if some upstart wants to challenge the current establishment, they are going to be faced with a steep uphill battle. According to, in 2012 the House had a 90% incumbency rate as the Senate boasted 91%. Talk about job security. Of course there are many reasons politicians remain in their seats term to term like, just off the top of my head, establishment money, family ties, actually doing a good job, no one better to vote for, or no one else to vote for at all.
There have been many studies about how incumbency effects voters mindsets and, while there is a range of numbers, it seems that incumbency gives a politician a 6% edge. That’s a nice bump, but the real advantage lies in the coffers of the national parties.

The Cost of New Ideas:



The above tables are from, and show the money spent in 2012 races. On display is the enormous financial advantage incumbents have over their challengers. For the House, incumbent Democrats spent double the amount their challengers did, and entrenched Republicans spent seven times more. The numbers only grow for Senate Democrats, who outspent their opponents by about 75%. Interesting enough, Senate Republicans and their opponents spent roughly the same amount.

The graph below shows how much it takes to beat an incumbent in the House since 1974, but it doesn’t specify any political party which prove the problem is with the institution. A problem that is only going to get worse as campaign finance laws become looser.

The price of running an election has skyrocketed which means only the rich or the well connected can mount affective campaigns. I can’t imagine any of the Founding Fathers looking at this graph and basking in the perfect system they created

beating an incumbent

This primary system is not working how it should be and, in order to run correctly, two things need to be done.
1.) Reform campaign laws so that money doesn’t pick who wins, the people do. That’s how a democracy works.
2.) The Democratic National Committee and progressive groups need to take risks and be able to get rid of ineffectual, entrenched politicians who take the place of bright individuals that could make a difference.

This isn’t a call for all liberal houses in both chambers but it should be representative and this is exactly where comes in.

With their unique methodology, Primary Colors has found Democratic politicians that misrepresent their more liberal districts. This map shows just how many Democrats are too moderate and bring attention to these officials in hopes they get primaried. This competitive spirit is exactly what the left, and America, needs to have democracy work in the future.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s