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Closed primary to alter substantially election dynamics

Although the closed primary is common among the states, it’s new to Louisiana for congressional contests and, further, will debut in a special election in early 2008 for the House seat to be vacated by incoming Gov. Bobby Jindal. This could pose questions for many and, as a highly-trained specialist in this area whose graduate education in political science partly was paid for by Louisiana taxpayers, I’ll provide for its citizens some answers concerning this subject.

First, as has been pointed out by one of my colleagues, that no runoff election exists to give a final general election winner an absolute majority not only is unremarkable for federal elections in the U.S., it is practically nonexistent. A very few states have super-minority kinds of requirements such as if nobody gets at least 40 percent in the general election that there is to be a runoff, but no state requires an absolute majority for declaration of a winner as a result of federal elections held on even-numbered years the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. (In fact, only about a dozen states or so even require runoff elections for any election, almost all of them in the South.)

Second, for the foreseeable future it will be rare that a winning candidate does not get an absolute majority in the general election, even if more than just a Republican and Democrat nominee run. As weak as the major parties are in Louisiana, the state of minor parties is much worse and the closed primary legislation was designed to strengthen the major parties without commensurate benefits for minor parties. It is difficult to imagine than any minor party candidate could get more of a small sliver of the vote in these kinds of contests any time soon when both major parties put up a nominee.

Third, however, the exception could be well-(probably self-) financed independent candidates along the lines such as recent gubernatorial hopeful John Georges. But even their effect will be diminished because the new law implicitly has what is called a “sore loser” provision. In their explicit versions which many states have, the law flat out mandates that a loser of a party primary cannot run in the general election. (One state that does not have any such law is Connecticut, a lacking that Sen. Joseph Lieberman exploited last election cycle when he lost the party primary to a fringe far-leftist; he then ran as an independent in the general election and won.)

Louisiana’s version is implicit because its sets qualifying for candidates who do not go through a primary nomination process at the same time as those who wish to vie for a party nomination. Normally, but not in the case for Jindal’s 1st District seat because it is a special election and all things are accelerated, that would occur four months prior to the actual general election. Thus, for a regular election in the first week of July, candidates must irrevocably choose their routes, either contesting a party primary or passing on them and going straight to the general election by qualifying as a minor party candidate (assuming these parties have not yet met the organizing threshold set by state law that would enable them to have their own nomination elections) or as no party (colloquially termed “independent”). This prevents candidates from contesting a primary and if losing it to change registrations to no party and getting in on the general election.

Thus, for federal elections we won’t see any last-minute switches less than two months to the primary/general election, such as Georges when only a few days before qualifying began he announced he would run as an independent despite having for months campaigned calling himself a Republican. Any candidate in essence would have to declare much earlier and fight all the publicity being monopolized by the races for the major party nominations. It will make a strategy of going independent more difficult to pull off successfully (although the compressed time frame of the special election might mitigate these obstacles to some degree).

Fourth, any registered voter may participate in the primary election, but not exactly because of the law’s literal wording. It gives the option, identical to the already-existing system for presidential preference primaries, of letting the qualifying (currently only the major) parties decide whether to allow non-party members to participate in their primaries. As it is, the Republicans refused to allow this but the Democrats will allow this. Thus, anybody not registered with a major party will be able to vote in the Democrats’ primary until the party decides to change it.

Fifth, the new law benefits Republicans, conservatives, blacks, and reduces the political power of white Democrats. Currently, a substantial minority of registered white Democrats routinely have voted for Republican candidates in national elections. The GOP’s complete closure of their nomination process means these individuals will have to switch registrations to Republican if they wish to participate in nomination decisions for the party whose candidates they typically have supported. In turn, this will create a more conservative nominating electorate for Republicans, and thus produce candidates who are more conservative.

This same dynamic will drain whites from the Democrats, strengthening the power of black voters in the party. It does not necessarily mean more black Democrat registrants, since non-party members will be allowed to vote, but black independents support Democrat candidates at a level close to what those registered with the party do. Still, the proportion of blacks participating in party primaries will increase relative to whites, meaning nominees are more likely to be black and liberal.

Thus, the “moderate” white Democrat will become an endangered species as a candidate and this process is likely to produce a white conservative Republican matched against (depending on district demographics) white or black liberal Democrat for House elections. Given the electorate generally is right of center in Louisiana, this means more Republicans who are more conservative will get elected. It could be, depending upon census numbers and who has control of state government after the 2011 elections, that this system will produce an entirely Republican, conservative slate of members of the House after the 2012 elections. (The dynamics for Senate contests are just as interesting, but that’s a subject for another time.)

Thus, the closed primary system for Louisiana federal elections will alter substantially election dynamics in the state.


Anonymous said...

Interesting analysis. I'm glad people are finally starting to discuss our new Congressional election system. I wish all these matters had been thrashed out properly before the legislature approved it.

I'm not sure I agree with your dismissal of the effect that third-party and independent candidates might have in the near future. I posted my thoughts on that subject a few days ago:

Anonymous said...

I am very interested in this topic b/c I had to switch from independent to a particular party in order to vote in the presidential primary. I am very upset b/c it should be my right regardless of party affiliation. After reading your blog, it seems as though these changes were set w/ candidates, not voters, in mind. How can citizens in oppositon lobby to revert this?