Endorsements Guide: Why your Indivisible Group Should Consider Endorsing in Primaries

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.

4. Ensure a more responsive elected. 

There’s a reason why Indivisible groups’ advocacy gets results. It’s because your electeds know that they will have to face you eventually when they run for reelection. And the risk of a primary tends to keep electeds -- even the ones in very safe seats -- on their toes and makes them more responsive to constituents.

If your elected representative has been genuinely non-responsive, or out of line with your values, considering endorsing a primary challenger shows them that there are consequences of failing to stand indivisible with you.

The Tea Party

So many of us woke up on November 9th wondering, “How did we get here?” While the answers to that question are complex -- and would take a full US history class to address in totality -- the Tea Party deserves a lot of the credit (or the blame) for the current state of American politics. 

The Republican party has been moving to the right for decades, but the Tea Party accelerated that rightward shift. Since 2010, Republicans in Congress have known that they could face a primary challenge if they fail to uphold extremist principles on everything from Obamacare repeal to abortion. That year, establishment politicians faced challenges from upstart Tea Party candidates in both open primaries and primaries with an incumbent Republican. We don’t agree with their politics, but there’s no denying that the Tea Party was successful at moving the Republican Party to the right. Similarly, Indivisible's grassroots power in every district gives us the chance to move the entire national conversation to the left.

Three Key Principles for a Productive Primary

Not all primaries are created equal. You can engage in a primary and fail to have the impact you want. There are three key rules to follow to productively engage in competitive primaries as an Indivisible group.

1. No personal attacks. 

Primaries work when they focus on ideas and policies, not personalities. If your group’s effort to talk about a primary devolves into personal attacks on individual candidates (or each other), that’s a warning sign you’re not ready to endorse. If your group isn’t sure if you’re ready to endorse, our Organizing team is always on hand to talk it through (reach out by emailing field@indivisible.org).

2. Have clear, transparent rules about how you’ll make decisions. 

One of the most common ways for primaries to get messy is if people feel they weren’t heard or the rules weren’t fair. You can avoid this by having a clear, transparent process (see next section for guidelines on this). And one key part of this process is ensuring that...

3. Everyone commits to supporting the nominee in the general election. 

Emotions in primaries can run high. People get attached to their candidate and reasonable Indivisible members may disagree. But at the end of the day, we’re all here for a reason: we’re taking our country back from the plutocratic, white-supremacist forces currently in control. We asked the Presidential candidates to sign our Indivisible Pledge, and we should approach other primaries in the same spirit: we must win general elections, and that means supporting the eventual nominee, even if they weren’t your first choice.

To help unify and mobilize your group, you may consider hosting an Indivisible rally on the day after the primary election to throw your full support behind the general election nominee and start gearing up for November. You can even ask that your endorsed nominee commits to attending the rally, whether they won or lost the primary. 

Reiterating this shared mission from the beginning -- and committing to endorse the winner of the primary as part of your decision-making process -- helps to reduce the risk that a primary gets divisive and turns people off. This is how we continue standing indivisible after primaries. This is how we win.

Common Questions and Misconceptions

Primaries weaken candidates ahead of the general election.

Reams of evidence show that primaries actually result in candidates who are stronger in the general election. Primaries are a chance for candidates to build their campaign, practice making their case, and engage substantively on the issues that matter to progressives -- and that makes them stronger.

Can’t we all just agree to fight Trump and the white supremacist uber-conservatives?

Yes! There’s no conflict between fighting the Trump Right and engaging in primaries. At the end of the day, a general election between a Trump-supporter and a Democrat you have some quibbles with will be a no-brainer. It’s crucial that all Indivisibles, whether or not they engage in primaries, recognize that ultimate goal.

Pushing a candidate too far to the left during the primary can hurt their chances in the general.

Primaries are about ensuring your Members of Congress are responsive to you, their constituents. If a candidate makes changes to their policy platform during a primary, they’re being responsive to the wishes of their community.

Primaries burn campaign resources ahead of the general election.

There is no finite set of resources for a campaign. In fact, hard-fought primaries can elevate candidate name recognition, spur interest in a race, and lead to an influx of key small-dollar donations. Plus, they’ll have a strong group of trained volunteers ready to talk to voters in the general.

Considering a primary endorsement will create divisions within your group that will weaken your organization.

Primaries can be emotional for groups and individuals -- and they’re not right for everyone. But as long as the primary endorsement process is fair, and your group commits to supporting whoever the winner is in the general, the process can leave your group stronger.

Primaries hurt the party.

Primary challenges certainly create headaches for the leaders of the party -- any challenge to power does that. But they also bring new blood into the system and prevent parties from growing stale. And primaries for open seats are a golden opportunity to debate new ideas and hear from new voices. If we want a strong Democratic Party, primaries are a necessary part of the process.