March 2021

The Primary Problem

A shocking incongruity exists between low congressional approval ratings and near-certain incumbent reelection rates: Americans don’t approve of how Congress is performing, yet most leaders are not held accountable for the division and dysfunction that plagues the institution.

During the 116th Congress, approval ratings averaged around 20%. But that’s not unique to one party’s control or leadership: over the last decade, approval ratings haven’t reached higher than 30% — that’s a record low

This past election cycle, 98% of House incumbents were reelected in their party primary. But similar to approval ratings, that’s not unique to Congress today: since WWII, 98% of House incumbents have been reelected in party primaries. 

However egregious, this disparity can be explained: it’s a systems problem, and it’s the Primary Problem facing democracy today. The problem is not just who is elected, but rather how they’re elected — in particular, how few Americans actually do the electing in partisan primaries.

In a new white paper, the Unite America Institute breaks down the Primary Problem: despite a record turnout in the 2020 general election, only 10% of eligible Americans nationwide cast ballots in primary elections that effectively decided the winners in a supermajority (83%) of Congressional seats.

The report analyzes 2020 primary election returns in all 435 congressional districts, and finds most of Congress is effectively elected in party primaries by a relatively small, unrepresentative base of partisan voters. This gives disproportionate power to a unique sub-block of the electorate at-large, and elects similarly unrepresentative leaders. 

Worse yet, some voters had no say at all in who represents them. In 2020, nearly 11 million independent voters were barred from participating in party primaries entirely, and nearly 82 million eligible voters did not have any say in the outcome given a lack of competition in 151 dominant party primaries. 

The consequence: leaders in office know their only threat to reelection is the potential of being “primaried” by someone to their ideological extreme. According to the research, this threat prompts members to adapt their behavior, including which voters they are incentivized to represent and how they vote. 

The ultimate result of partisan primaries is that most legislators are incentivized to keep in lock step with a narrow and extreme slice of the electorate, rather than govern in public interest.Primaries have been weaponized by the political extremes –– once threatening functional governance, and now, threatening democracy itself. As then-President Trump told his supporters right before the insurrection: “You have to get your people to fight...We have to primary the hell out of the ones that don’t fight. You primary them.”
Nick Troiano in The Atlantic

As demonstrated in the Progressive Era — a time of robust political innovation which reinvigorated democratic processes and gave more power to the people — reform offers recourse.

States can address the Primary Problem by adopting nonpartisan primaries — as already used in California, Washington, and Nebraska, and most recently adopted in Alaska — that allow voters to cast a ballot in a single primary with all candidates on the same ballot. The top finishers advance to the general election, where whoever earns majority support wins. 

Nonpartisan primaries help foster better governing incentives by ensuring leaders are accountable to all voters in their district: they also have higher voter participation rates and produce more representative outcomes. 

Commentators are already documenting how Alaska’s reform — which will take effect in 2022 for all elections — is changing governing incentives, enfranchising voters, and creating pathways for electoral competition.

Every election should matter, and every vote should count.


Other research