Contested Primaries Help, Rather Than Hurt, Democrats in General Elections

by: Chris Bowers

Fri Apr 24, 2009 at 16:58

Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair T.J. Rooney today declared that his goal in 2010 is to avoid a contested Democratic primary in both the Senatorial and Gubernatorial campaigns:

Take the year off and chill.

That's the message to Pennsylvania Democrats from state Democratic Party Chairman T.J. Rooney, who on Monday said that, if things seem quiet, it's intentional.

"Our goal in 2010 is not to have a primary," Rooney said. "Our goal is to come together as a party and, in the meantime, let the other side beat the tar out of one another."

In making this proclamation, Chairman Rooney is relying on a longstanding bit of Democratic conventional wisdom. Namely, that closely contested Democratic primaries hurt Democratic chances in general elections. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence to support it. In fact, a quick survey of the eight most closely contested Democratic Senate primaries in 2006 and 2008 shows that the winners of those primaries actually did pretty darn well in the general election (note: only campaigns where the general election was decided by 10% or less were examined):

Wins (Five)
Maryland 2006 (Cardin vs. Mfume)
Minnesota 2008 (Franken vs. several)
Montana 2006 (Tester vs. Morrison)
Oregon 2008 (Merkley vs. Novick)
Virginia 2006 (Webb vs. Harris)

Losses (Two)
Georgia 2008 (Martin vs. Jones)
Kentucky 2008 (Lunsford vs. Fischer)

Other (One)
Connecticut 2006 (loss, but not to Republican)

How is going 5-2-1 possibly evidence that contested primaries hurt Democratic chances in close Senate elections? Further, as a I discuss in the extended entry, polling from these campaigns immediately before and after the Democratic primary also indicates that the contested primaries were a clear benefit for the eventual winner.

Chris Bowers :: Contested Primaries Help, Rather Than Hurt, Democrats in General Elections
Only non-partisan polls used, only one poll from each polling firm:

Connecticut 2006
Pre-primary (2): Lamont -12.0%
Post-primary (3): Lamont -7.2%

Georgia 2008
Pre-primary (1): Martin -11.0%
Post-primary (1): Martin -6.0%

Kentucky 2008
Pre-primary (1): Lunsford -12.0%
Post-primary (1): Lunsford +5.0%

Maryland 2006
Pre-primary (3): Cardin +6.4%
Post-primary (5): Cardin +7.2%

Minnesota 2008
Pre-primary (3): Franken -3.0%
Post-primary (4): Franken -3.3%

Montana 2006
Pre-primary (2): Tester +3.5%
Post-Primary (1): Tester +7.0%

Oregon 2008
Two months pre-primary (1): Merkey -13%
Just pre-primary (1): Merkley -3%
Post-primary (1): Merkley -9%

Virginia 2006
Pre-primary (2): Webb -13.6%
Post-primary (3): Webb -11.4%

In six of the eight cases, the eventual Democratic nominee saw his numbers rise after winning the contested primary. In one of the other cases, the "drop" was only 0.3%. In the only other case, Jeff Merkley saw his numbers rise 10% during the hotly contested primary period, even if they dropped after the primary. Merkley went on to win the election anyway.

There simply is no evidence that contested primaries hurt Democratic Senate candidates. If anything, the evidence is that these primaries help Democratic Senate candidates. This makes perfect sense, since having tons of free media, forcing your campaign into high gear, and testing your message is almost guaranteed to improve your chances in the campaign.

As such, why so many Democratic Party leaders seek to avoid contested primaries is difficult to comprehend. Perhaps they are dealing with pouty, high-name ID candidates who will only enter the campaign if the primary field is cleared beforehand. Whatever the reason, it would be a positive step forward for our party and our democracy if more people started realizing that contested primaries are, much more often than not, helpful for Democratic general election chances.

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Aren't you forgetting the motherlode? (4.00 / 9)
Obama vs. Clinton 2008.

I don't think you could have a more dramatic example of a contested, even at times bitter, primary that ended up actually helping the winner (with a massive organizational advantage for the general).

Agreed.... (4.00 / 2)
Even if Clinton had won, her network would have been impressive especially compared to McCain.  

Even if future primaries aren't as contested, I at least hope the candidates are smart enough to build that sort of network.

[ Parent ]
Especially in Pennsylvania (4.00 / 2)
Rooney and Rendell were quite bold about telling people that they held the seat of Democratic power in the state, and those who thought of following Obama had better think long and hard before they did:

"There is no more popular elected official in the commonwealth than Gov. Rendell," said Chairman T.J. Rooney. "No more prolific fundraiser, nobody who has worked harder to build an infrastructure. All of that has been turned over to Hillary Clinton."

. . .

"If I ask a county executive to be for Sen. Clinton, he's got to think of two things," Rendell said. "One, does he want to be for Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama? And two, does he want to tick off the governor who's responsible for sending a lot of funding into his county?"

Now Rooney wants to do away with primaries?

Same message coming across -- butt out of the process, there are "Dems" who own this state.

[ Parent ]
Agreed. Out of sight - out of mind... (4.00 / 1)
How does a primary debate on the ideas possibly hurt candidates (so long as they don't take it in the mud) when progressive ideas are constantly being explained and defended in the public's mind?

Also, is there not a difference in psychological perception of a candidate who has been vetted by a primary process, especially with low information voters who might assume that the candidate who won the primary must have done so because they had better ideas or other characteristics.

Not to mention the infrastructure, delivery honing, and financial channels that a primary builds ahead of the main event...

Help support "CRASHING THE STATES"--a Netroots Film!

And in Pennsylvania... (0.00 / 0) 2004 Specter was re-elected even though Toomey was a strong primary challanger.  Everyone can think of examples of bitter primary contests than end up hurting Dems.  For example, in 2004 the primary between Gov. Bob Holden & then Auditor Claire McCaskill probably helped boost Matt Blunt over McCaskill in the general election.  Bitter is bad.  On the other hand, in Virginia, I don't think Jim Webb would have beaten George Allen if not for the primary contest Webb ran against Harris Miller.  It can go either way but I agree with Chris'es point -- the conventional wisdom is wrong, primaries are usually good even if it results in heartburn & tough choices for party insiders.

Or PA, 2002 (0.00 / 0)
The Rendell-Casey PA-GOV primary was a hellishly expensive bloodbath, and we ended up fine.  Also, it's clear that the GOP will have contested primaries in both races.

I'm fine with a contested primary; I'd just prefer at least that our House members try to resolve things so that multiple seats aren't made open.

[ Parent ]
It depends on how the primary is run... (4.00 / 4)
If it's a nasty, bitter, drawn out battle, it can definitely hurt...  But, if it's run like a real primary should (i.e. no animosity, just may the best candidate win), then we should be in real good shape...

The Ohio Senate primary is going to be important, 'cos Jennifer Brunner needs the publicity to get some cash, and Lee Fisher desperately needs some experience campaigning against a real opponent (he's such a weak candidate, on so many levels, his only hope right now is for the Strickland machine to put him over the top...)

REID: Voting against us was never part of our arrangement!
SPECTER: I am altering the deal! Pray I don't alter it any further!
REID: This deal keeps getting worse all the time!

[ Parent ]
Yeah (4.00 / 5)
We'd better have contested primaries because the general elections are getting less competitive with the decline of the GOP.

This is kind of tongue in cheek, but in a lot of places the primary is the only meaningful vote we get to cast. I'd say having a goal of "no primaries" is anti-democratic (small-d).

ec=-8.50 soc=-8.41   (3,967 Watts)

Hmm... (0.00 / 0)
In some congressional races I agree, but not in senate or governatorial races.  There are still too many GOP Govs and Senators or Blue states for my taste.    

[ Parent ]
Primaries are expensive (4.00 / 1)
The goal is always to clear the primary field because then the Party gets to choose the candidate from the backroom and it keeps out those pesky grassroots people.

Primaries cost money as well and if there is a party supported candidate they have to spend money on winning the primary that they really only wanted to spend on the general.

  Chris is absolutely right though that it does strengthen the campaigns and gives them a chance to test their message before the general.  

Create excitement (4.00 / 5)
Carol Shea-Porter ran the cheapest successful campaign against an incumbent Republican House memner in years, maybe decades.  She was a huge inderdog in the primary and pulled it off.  She was outspent total (including the primary) somethoing like $1.1 million to 300,000.

This is the more Republican seat in NH.

I can give lots of examples.  NJ-7 had a cleared field and Linda Stender ram one of the worst campaigns in the country.  John Adler had to win his way through in NJ-3 and he was the winner in November.

Right in PA in 2008, Kathy Dahlkemper had to claw her way through the primary in PA-3.  Bob Roggio in PA-6 and Siobhan Bennett in PA-15 got free rides.  Dahlkemper won the General Election despite competing in the toughest district of the three.

Frank Kratovil, lest we forget, had a tough primary in MD-1.  Jennifer Dougherty had a breeze in MD-6 and an opponent into his 80s.  Kratovil was the winner.

A primary seemed to help in VA-11 where Gerry Connolly became the consensus choice in an even district after his win.

The one primary that stands out, maybe is NY-26.  That is not as easy a district so we may have lost it anyway. A September primary is not such a good thing.

New Mexico primaries: 3.  General election wins, 3.

[ Parent ]
And in 2006, the only Senate race it seemed we might win (0.00 / 0)
which we wound up losing was Tennessee, where Ford was (essentially) uncontested.  

Although Bob Casey in PA was also basically uncontested, and he destroyed Santorum.  

Saxby Chambliss  

But there were reasons unique to Casey (4.00 / 2)
He was seen as having unimpeachable personal decency, and his being pro-life (while anathema to us) forced Santorum away from what would have been his main message and into dealing with economic issues instead.  

Had there been a strong challenger to Casey -- Hoeffel and Hafer were actively considering the race (and both, IMHO, likely would have lost to Casey) -- then I'm not sure the general win would have been as resounding, and national resources might have had to be trained here which otherwise could go to MT and VA instead.

[ Parent ]
Don't forget ... (4.00 / 1)
the Casey name is still big in PA .. especially to the older set ...and as to Chris' point ... being a PA resident .. Rooney is an ass ... the Democratic party is no where what it should be in Chester County(Philly suburbs) ... Rooney isn't really interested in building up the Democratic Party .. he is just interested in protecting his own little feifdom .. I'd love for Chris(or anyone else in PA) to tell me what Rooney has done to make the Party stronger in PA ... gains that have been made in PA were made despite Rooney

[ Parent ]
Isn't this just Nixon-era conventional wisdom? (0.00 / 0)
I've been reading Nixonland lately. It seems pretty clear from the history there that the contested Democratic presidential primaries in 1968 and 1972 did substantially hurt the eventual nominee's chances.

The difference was that in those days the Democrats were genuinely divided and the bitter primary just underscored that division and drove off more moderate voters.

Different Dynamic at the National Level (4.00 / 3)
I don't see how a primary could have been avoided in 1968 & 1972.  The party really was deeply divided in both years and nobody could paper over the differences.  Any major political party will have a primary when there is no incumbent.  The textbook example of a primary that did hurt badly and might have been avoided was 1980 -- Carter is still mad at Kennedy & vice versa I'm sure.  In contrast, in 2000 almost nobody would make the case that the Bradley challange against Gore hurt in the long run.

[ Parent ]
Not apples to apples (4.00 / 1)
This data is useless, because it misses the obvious fact that contested Democratic primaries happen overwhelmingly in D-winnable races. (Candidates don't generally compete for the privilege of badly losing, which skews the data irreparably.) The data is consistent with supposing that without a primary, the Democrats would have done far better in those races. I'm not saying that I believe this, I'm just saying that what we see here is as good as zero evidence that this is wrong.

re (4.00 / 1)
How is going 5-2-1 possibly evidence that contested primaries hurt Democratic chances in close Senate elections?

don't you think the sample size seems small chris?

Primaries are definately a good thing. (4.00 / 6)
It is a chance to get additional earned media, to bring up the issues that you want people focused on for the general, and particularly depending on the calendar an opportunity to "field test" your staff and motivate volunteers earlier in the process.

Without a primary, you really have no measure of how well your staff is doing, polling won't tell you, observation of actions is too micro and evaluation of the unseen, there really is no test but an actual election.

Additionally, the act of voting for a person, or knowing a person won a vote related to that level of office grants additional credibility.  The difference between just being "declared" the nominee versus winning a primary to become the nominee is a significant matter among voters and donors.

It goes bad when you have a candidate who isn't of sufficient quality to undergo extended scrutiny (which we don't want in office anyway) or a party/infrastructure that is corrupt or negligent in the process and plays no role in assuring that the better candidate emerges (or plays too much of a role).

Fund raising is benefited a number of ways, from different candidates cultivating different lists which we hope will be shared with the winner for the general to sparking earlier interest and an easy demonstration of impending need for financial support much earlier in the process.  Name ID gets driven up earlier, the message gets more dissemination earlier, overall exposure to the campaign is dramatically increased.  How anyone could mistake this as bad or dangerous is clearly stuck in the days when there were few limits on fund raising and the party bosses chose the nominees.

Contest every seat every time, primaries for as many as possible, incumbent or not.

condensed (4.00 / 3)
How anyone could mistake this as bad or dangerous is clearly stuck in the days when there were few limits on fund raising and the party bosses chose the nominees.

That's exactly what they want -- "the days when there were few limits on fund raising and the party bosses chose the nominees" -- and that's the crux of Rooney's "ask."

Butt out, ordinary people, and let the Big Boys run the show.

[ Parent ]
It's about power to the party, stupid. (4.00 / 1)
I'm not really calling you stupid, Chris.

But I am saying that once a Dem is elected, that Dem becomes a part of the organization, and works within the power structure of that organization, and -- whether that Dem protests or not -- becomes an arm of that organization.

The call to "chill out" is a call to concede the concentration and/or consolidation of political power to the party. A primary is a challenge to the party's power.


This seems only to apply... (0.00 / 0) primaries versus incumbents.

The larger discussion and the basis of the post (the PA-Gov 2010 race) are outside that realm.

It isn't at all shocking that the party will move to intervene to avoid primary challenges of incumbents, undesirable often, and hurts the party in the long run most of the time, but the logic isn't flawed.

[ Parent ]
Incumbents (4.00 / 3)
Neither of the PA races Rooney is talking about will have a Democratic incumbent.

Only one of the eight Senate primaries cited by Chris involved an incumbent "Democrat". Joe Lieberman.

[ Parent ]
a matter of who chooses candidate (4.00 / 1)
Incumbent or no, what I see involves who controls or decides who even has a shot at the seat, and the argument about "expensive primaries" takes the same frame -- don't mess with the party or make us spend more of our money because we will decide who and what is best for the citizenry.

[ Parent ]
That is the attitude (4.00 / 1)
The Party will get involved in a primary and it does not have to be if there is an incumbent.   They will also get involved in non-incumbent races as well.  Of course often the preferred method is to just discourage someone from challenging their chosen candidate.

[ Parent ]
Depends on whether the primary combatants "play nice" (0.00 / 0)
I opine:

One of the key factors that should be mentioned differentiating the five wins from the two losses is that, if memory serves, in the five wins, the primary combatants largely "played nice," while in the two losses, the primaries were noticeably more negatively-toned (Jones and Fischer both took their share of shots at the eventual nominees).  I think that determines whether a primary helps or hurts the eventual nominee.  This is why I always root for competitive Republican primaries - they appear to take a much more negative tone (see Pearce v. Wilson in 2008's combative NM-GOP primary or how Toomey v. Specter is shaping up this year, as well as the thinly veiled shots Marco Rubio is already taking at Charlie Crist).  Democratic primaries are rarely divisive slugfests on par with Republican primaries, so they tend to be more helpful for the eventual Democratic nominee.

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