It’s common to worry about negative effects of primaries, like division or nastiness. But the reality is that primaries are as healthy and constructive as we make them. In a good primary, there’s a robust campaign and a healthy exchange of ideas, allowing for the best candidate to carry the nomination into the general election. And in a healthy primary, everyone unites behind the nominee at the end of the day. This chapter is about how your group can make that happen.
Four Things Primaries are Good For
First, let’s talk about the role that primaries play in our democracy. Primaries accomplish the following things:
1. Generate a healthy debate of ideas.
Without primaries, the only debate in the public square will come during the general election. And let’s be honest -- one party has been taken over by a far-right, white supremacist cabal. This means you’re not usually going to get a very good debate about policy in the general election.
The primary creates a space for candidates to talk about who they are, compare their visions for the country, and debate different policy ideas and priorities. If you want to talk about Medicare for All, or how best to stop climate change, or reforming criminal justice laws, these types of debates usually happen in the primary. And if you want to ensure the candidates who ultimately take power share your values -- well, that’s decided by who wins the primary. A general rule of thumb is that candidates tack to the center during a general election. So if you wait until the general election to seriously engage with candidates about their policies, you’ll have less of a chance to influence them.
Help! My progressive candidate is becoming a conservative in the general!
In many states and districts, strong progressive candidates tack to the center during the general election to try to win over independent voters. While messaging may change between a primary and general, you don’t want a candidate who abandons her principles as soon as the primary is over. That’s why primary elections are so important for getting candidates on the record before they feel the need to shift to the right during the general. Only in extreme cases should you consider rescinding your endorsement of a candidate -- generally if they have taken a new position in opposition to your group’s core values.
2. Strengthen the general election candidate.
Every election cycle, at least a few candidates who look great on paper turn out to be duds. The primary process ideally eliminates these folks before they lose in the general. Competitive primaries work as a “stress test,” forcing candidates and campaigns to seriously consider what it will take to win, uncovering anything problematic in a candidate’s background, and confirming that a candidate really has what it takes. And because a competitive primary forces candidates to start earlier and work harder, winning nominees tend to be stronger, more experienced candidates by the time they get to the general election.
This is borne out by the evidence, which suggests that having a greater number of candidates in a primary race correlates with a stronger eventual party candidate.
3. Build momentum for the general.
Political campaigns aren’t born with a fixed amount of money, volunteer hours, or overall enthusiasm -- for good campaigns, these are renewable resources.
Primaries are an opportunity to energize people and build a strong campaign earlier in the year. Voters will have more time to get to know the candidates, learn their platforms, and (hopefully) interact with them throughout the primary process. Starting this ramp-up of voter enthusiasm and investment in an election early in the year will help ensure progressives are ready to go for the general election.