It takes a completely different set of tools to win a primary election as compared to a general election.  This post will investigate the polarizing affects of primary elections and discuss the discrepancies between what is being talked about and who is listening in the two election seasons.  Then we’ll take a look at a seemingly centrist candidate on the republican side and discuss whether or not he has a shot in 2016.

It is well known that voter turnout in off-year elections is much lower than in presidential elections.  However, intuitively one would think that primary elections, which directly affect the hyped-up presidential election season, would have a turnout comparable to the actual presidential Election Day.  But this is not even close to the case.  In fact, primary elections average only a 27% turnout rate.  This is compared to the 62% turnout in the actual presidential elections. (1) This 35-point surge is certainly something worth looking into.

In many primary elections, it makes sense that voter turnout would be low.  Often times there is a clear front-runner.  The states that vote later in the election process may have no reason to turn out.  For this reason, Austin Ranny recalculated to only include elections with the following criteria:

  1. Two or more candidates or candidate-pledged slates appear on each party’s ballot
  2. At least one major national contender appears on each party’s ballot
  3. In neither party does the winner get more than 80% of the votes.

When taking these three characteristics into account, only eleven elections met the criteria.  These eleven elections are summarized in the table below.

ImageClearly, even in close and competitive primary races, there is a large discrepancy between the two election seasons.  But who makes up these primary voters?  Statistically, primary elections are much less demographically diverse (1).  In a study conducted in New Hampshire and Wisconsin during the 1968 presidential primary, there were too few blacks in either state’s sample to even complete a statistically significant study (1).

As far as partisanship goes in primary elections, Lester W. Milbrath declares “at least nine studies in three or more countries have shown that persons who strongly identify with or intensely prefer a given party are more likely to participate actively in the political process.” (1)  Because citizens often find the price of staying politically informed to be too high, without the labels of political parties to give uninformed citizens the cues that they need in order to cast their vote, many choose to simply abstain (1).


There are multiple different kinds of primary elections.  A primary is considered open “if participants either do not need to declare party affiliation as a prerequisite to participating in a primary election or may do so on election day.” (2)  Blanket primaries are a variation of open primaries in which voters receive a ballot with all candidates listed from each party.  A primary is considered closed “if participation is limited to voters who declare their affiliation to the party a specified period prior to the election.” (2)  Depending on the institutional rules of a state,candidates need to position themselves very differently in order to win.  “By competing for their party’s’ nominations candidates nominated in closed primaries are expected to be more extreme than candidates nominated in other primary systems.” (2)

The Hotelling-Downs model explains the voting tendencies of the electorate in a two-party system.  Voters have a “blisspoint.”  For example, if the issue is taxes, a voter may be fine with a 10% income tax-rate.  But anything higher than that is a breaking point that will cause the candidate to loose the vote.  This is true for all ideological points in the political arena.  On the political spectrum, there is a range from ultra liberal to ultra conservative.  Since there are only two parties, those on either far side of the spectrum will pick the candidate closest to their end, regardless of how far away from their ideologies that candidate is.  Therefore, both candidates position themselves as close to the middle without crossing their opponent and consequently, the median voter decides the outcome of the election. (3)  However, this is only the case in general elections.

Those who participate in primary elections often have stakes in the policy propositions.  These people are called party elites and “seek electoral victory in order to enact their preferred policies.” (2)  Therefore, the content discussed in primary elections has much more to do with policy, while the general election has much more to do with the Alexandrian performance aspect of political life.

Because of this, positions in the primary model do not match the Hotelling-Downsian median voter in the general electorate.  Instead their positions are closer to the median voter model of those who vote in primary elections.   Each candidate only has to appeal to their base, which in closed primary elections are only politically active and informed party enthusiasts. This causes candidates to campaign to appeal more extremely to the right or left in order to be nominated. (2) Candidates’ platforms on issues often differ greatly between primaries and general elections.  Sometimes this fact alone can anger voters enough to switch sides.  When voters are smart enough to compare primary and general strategies, they often become angry and feel misled.


Many credible news sources, as well as independent bloggers were angered by the extreme difference between Romney’s contradicting statements during the primary and general election seasons.  Ivn.com, an independent news source ran an article naming the eleven differences between “Primary and General Election Mitt Romney.”

The article questions Romney’s credibility and struggles to describe Romney’s actual image for America.  “More and more the question is, what exactly is Romney’s vision.”  The media caught on as well, portraying Romney as  “constantly flip-flopping on core principles and values.” (3)  And although it was shocking how much Romney’s views changed in the last decade, it was more shocking to see how his values had changed in just the six months of the height of election season.  For example, while Romney spoke of maximizing financial returns for investors during the primaries, he spoke of lowering financial burdens on the middle-class and poor during the general election.  While Romney supported the war in Iraq during the primaries, he spoke of ways it could have been avoided during the general election.  All of the examples showcase a more extreme conservative vision in the primaries followed by a more centralist view in an attempt to appeal to the majority of the electorate.

Chris Christie’s name has been buzzing in the presidential hopeful sphere since the 2012 primaries.  When rumors of the New Jersey Governor making a lat minute entrance into the 2012 election, “many republican organizations and activists, including some very conservative ones, were enthusiastic about the possibility.” (4)  However, Christie’s decision to stay on the sidelines, followed by his history of actions and issue statements that reflect a much more moderate stance, have caused the Republican Party to end their “Christie love affair.”

Now, Christie is not being invited to many conservative events, including the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.  “Mr. Christie’s failure to be invited is not a mere oversight; virtually every other prominent Republican who might be a plausible nominee in 2016 has been asked to participate.”(4)  According to Nate Silver, the Republican primary is already underway and “the nomination process is as much an inside game as an exercise of voting.” (4)  He explains that the “invisible primary- the phase of the campaign when candidates seek to accumulate scare resources like money, endorsements, staff talent and favorable relationships with the news media” is already being positioned far before voters get a say.

So what is the CPAC so upset about?  Well, Christie has become much more centrist and has proposed policies, signed bills and voiced opinions of many things that align with the democratic platform.  For example, Christie is a long-time advocate of gun-control, he has a moderate position on immigration, and let’s not forget Hurricane Sandy.  Christie embraced Obama and criticized republicans in congress for failing to pass a disaster-relief bill.

So although Christie has a 76% approval rating and has appealed to voters on both sides of party lines, he is no longer being embraced by his own party.  The issue has become that winning a primary and competing in an election requires two totally different candidates.  This is why the incumbent has a much easier time dealing with the electorate, because he/she doesn’t have face the “flip-flopping” issue.  Because our party system has become so polarized, a candidate that may possibly position himself most genuinely in the center of the Hotelling-Downs model may be nixed because of the primary process.  Funding and party-elite support may be gained in a primary election, but in the American system, the most appealing candidate during the primary may be the least fit candidate to win the general election.

1. Turnout and Representation in Presidential Primary Elections

Austin Ranney

The American Political Science Review , Vol. 66, No. 1 (Mar., 1972), pp. 21-37

2. Primary Election Systems and Representation.  Elisabeth Gerber, Rebecca Morton

3. http://ivn.us/2012/10/27/11-differences-between-primary-and-general-election-mitt-romney/?utm_source=ivn&utm_medium=featured&utm_content=prevnext&utm_campaign=opt-beta-v-1-0

4. http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/dcstevens/entry/the_hotelling-downs_model/

5. http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/27/christies-honeymoon-with-conservatives-is-over/?_r=0


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