What open Presidential primaries are teaching us about “independent” voters.


sam kelley
Shameless plug again: I’ll be on the air with Sam and Mel Young from 3 to 5 on Friday!

I keep thinking back to Monday’s Sam Kelley radio show (shameless plug: I’m on every Friday from 3 to 5pm!) and his guest, Patrick McWhorter of the Open and Honest Coalition, which is behind the Top Two primary initiative expected to be on the ballot this November.

McWhorter told Kelley that when he was the head of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, he grew increasingly frustrated with many state legislators, whom he described as highly ideological and difficult to work with. McWhorter cited this experience as a motivation for him to work on the Top Two primary campaign. He reiterated the claim that Top Two people often make, that candidates in a jungle primary will have to appeal to “everyone”. When asked by Sam about the prospect of two candidates of the same party making it to the general election (when the large majority people actually come out to vote) and, thus, being the only choices those voters have, McWhorter brushed the concern aside breezily with “they might be two very different Republicans!”

McWhorter’s belief that having more “independents” voting in primaries leads to more moderate (by his definition) candidates doesn’t seem to be holding up with the Presidential primaries, where several states allow voters who don’t belong to either major party to vote for a Presidential candidate. New Hampshire held its primary recently and, in a state famous for the large number of “independents” who participate in it, the two winners were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates won with substantial support of “independent” voters.

Now, let me be clear that I’m not drawing a specious false equivalence – as many have – between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The former is a longtime respected member of Congress who is running for President on real policy proposals and is a good person, the latter is bigoted pond scum with a combover. But to the people who are behind the Top Two effort, both Sanders and Trump would be equally unacceptable radical choices as, say, candidates for the Arizona Legislature. But they are who the “independents” who turned up to the New Hampshire primary favored as Presidential candidates. (While I’ll note that by raw vote the top two vote-getters were Sanders and Clinton, the vast majority of her votes from Democratic partisans, not “independents”.)

Analyst Clare Malone at FiveThirtyEight believes that “independents” matter little, if at all, to the outcomes of primaries. That’s certainly been the case with the open primaries we already have in Arizona in state elections, where a non-partisan voter may simply request a ballot for the partisan primary they wish to vote in. But we’ll see in the upcoming Presidential primaries.

As it stands for Super Tuesday, where eight of the ten states holding Presidential preference elections have open primaries, polling in those eight states shows Trump with a lead in four, in a virtual tie with Cruz in one, and Cruz with a lead in two on the Republican side. Open primaries don’t seem to be helping John Kasich, the guy largely seen as “moderate”* there. On the Democratic side Clinton leads in six open primary states (most in the South) and Sanders leads in Vermont and Massachusetts, as expected. So it looks like minimal impact by “independents” there.

*Of course, John Kasich is NOT a moderate by any stretch but is deftly parlaying his rare moments of decency, such as accepting the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act, and a gruff irascible exterior that press people swoon over into a big distraction from awful and radical he really is. Do not be fooled, liberals!