Primaries Are Getting More Crowded with Candidates, and That’s Good News for Extremists and Bad News for Voters

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Yves here. I will leave it to readers to have erm, fun, with this article. However, I can’t resist making one observation. It’s a bit difficult to stomach members of the professional-managerial class hand-wringing about extremists when they’ve had perilous little interest in, let alone done anything to remedy, the real and rising problems plaguing the poor and increasingly the middle class: addiction, lack of affordable housing, lousy career prospects for the young, horribly overpriced and typically mediocre health care, and now inflation pressures.

By Matt Harris, Assistant Professor, Political Science, Park University. Originally published at The Conversation

As they head to the polls to cast a ballot in primaries, voters may find themselves staring at a long list of candidates. In most cases, these primaries are winner-take-all. Whoever gets the most votes will represent their party in November.

There were seven candidates on the GOP primary ballot in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District on June 7, 2022. Thomas Kean Jr. had 45.9% of the vote with 80% of ballots counted when the Associated Press declared him the winner. In Montana, five candidates competed in the June 7 GOP primary in the 1st Congressional District. With 78% of the ballots counted, Ryan Zinke was leading with 41.4% of votes and Al Olszewski had 40%.

There was a difference this year from primaries just a decade ago: Data from the Center for Election Science, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on voting reform, indicates that in contested primaries, the number of candidates has been rising since 2010. That growth has important implications about the quality of the candidates and the views they represent.

Each additional candidate who gets votes lowers the number of votes needed to secure a nomination. The outcomes of primaries with many candidates are unpredictable and may result in extreme, inexperienced or controversial nominees who may not truly represent a majority of voters. And a fringe candidate winning the primary and advancing to the general election can mean a risky candidate for their party.

Flooded Field

The average contested primary for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives grew from 5.2 candidates in 2010 to 7.3 candidates in 2020. This flooding of the field can be attributed to several factors, including the role of technology: Getting on the ballot is relatively easy, and candidates can promote themselves and solicit funds via social media.

As a political scientist in Missouri, I’ve been closely following this crowding of the field in our U.S. Senate race. Here, the GOP is reckoning with the presence of disgraced former governor Eric Greitens in a packed primary field of 21 candidates.

The crowding of fields is not limited to congressional candidates. The GOP presidential primary in 2016 featured 17 candidates, while the Democrats fielded 28 presidential candidates in 2020.

While the field began to clear for Joe Biden following February 2020’s South Carolina primary, eight months before the general election, Donald Trump won primaries well into March 2016 while hovering around 40% of the vote.

These crowded fields don’t always lead to the kind of results that prompt fear among party leaders of a general election disaster. For example, scandal-plagued Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, who failed to get the support of mainstream Republicans in the primary race, was ousted after losing to a candidate who won 33.4% of the vote in an eight-person field.

Competitive Versus Safe Seats

Being an ideologically extreme candidate can be an advantage in partisan primaries. Although there is some dispute in political science as to how representative party primary voters are of their parties, there is no debating that they are ideologically polarized subsets of the general electorate.

Candidate crowding in partisan primaries is more likely to happen in seats where the primary is the only true contest in the election. In these districts, it is a virtual certainty that one party’s nominee will win the general if they can survive the primary. Victorious primary candidates can often walk to a general election victory after winning a third or less of the primary vote.

This happened in Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in 2018.

Incumbent Rep. John Conyers had resigned. A primary election was being held for a Democrat to seek to finish out his term. At the same time, the Democratic candidate to run for a full term in Congress was also being elected.

Both races included Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Brenda Jones, among other candidates. Moderate Jones won the four-way race to compete for the remainder of Conyers’ term. Tlaib, currently a member of the left-wing “Squad,won the six-way race to become the nominee for the full term. The presence of two additional candidates who were not close to winning had seemingly flipped the results.

A sample ballot in the June 2022 primary election to fill Alaska’s one seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Alaska Division of Elections Twitter account

National political party organizations may try to steer voters and clear the primary field in competitive districts, but candidates are often left to their own devices in safe seats. National and state parties would prefer to focus on competitive races than ones in which their side will likely win regardless of the nominee.

Where ideological extremists run in competitive districts and win the primary, it can present a different problem. The extremist’s party can be damaged by their candidacy with a lower vote share in the general election.

‘Extreme, Inexperienced or Controversial’

Several primaries in recent memory have followed the pattern of elevating extreme, inexperienced or controversial primary candidates into party nominees.

In the special election Democratic primary for Florida’s safely Democratic 20th congressional district in November 2021, Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick won by just five votes. Cherfilus-McCormick, who had never held elected office before, won 23.8% of the vote in a field with 10 other candidates after spending millions of her own money on the campaign. She won the general election.

This year, in the GOP House primary in Ohio’s 9th congressional district, J.R. Majewski won with 35.8% of the vote. Majewski, a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory who has never held political office, defeated two state legislators in the primary.

In the GOP House primary in North Carolina’s 1st congressional district, election conspiracy theorist Sandy Smith won the primary with 31.4% of the vote, defeating seven other candidates. One of her GOP competitors dug up allegations of abuse against Smith by multiple ex-husbands and her daughter. She has denied them.

In the GOP House primary in North Carolina’s 1st congressional district, election conspiracy theorist Sandy Smith, pictured here on her website, won the primary with 31.4% of the vote, defeating seven other candidates. Sandy Smith for Congress website

In perhaps the most extreme example of a crowded primary field, the nonpartisan special primary election to replace Rep. Don Young in Alaska asks voters to wade through 48 candidates, ranging from Sarah Palin to Santa Claus. Yes, Santa Claus. While ranked-choice voting in the general election might lead to a consensus choice, the wide-open primary has led to questions from voters about how to ensure they’ll have one of their top choices make it to that stage.

‘Nothing approaching a majority’

While the quality of a candidate is in the eye of the beholder to some extent, the pattern here is political newcomers, often with strong ideological views, winning their parties’ nominations with nothing approaching a majority.

On one hand, contested primaries can be symbolic of a vibrant democracy. They can indicate that candidates want to get involved and are able to do so. They offer multiple perspectives for voters.

On the other hand, these crowded fields can make choosing more difficult for voters. They have to make decisions with little knowledge of how other like-minded voters will vote. Strategic support for a specific candidate can be hard to coordinate.

With votes split among multiple candidates, a candidate may win with a small plurality while being disliked by, or disconnected from, the larger primary electorate.

Runoff elections that exist in many Southern primaries and ranked-choice voting in Maine can help in requiring candidates to meet a certain threshold of support. In the majority of states, however, 2022 will provide, I believe, countless examples in which primaries are akin to what political scientist Henry E. Brady described as “poorly designed lotteries.” With lots of candidates on the ballot, the winners of those lotteries may not be the voters.

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  1. Michael Ismoe

    Since when is having multiple candidates a sign of an unhealthy democracy? This reads like it was developed at the DCCC. “Don’t vote for those (extremists/radicals/anarchists/socialists over there, when we have some people here that Nancy Pelosi thinks are just swell.”

    I remember when AOC was a rebel who was going to take down the DC establishment. But that was almost 4 years ago. Things change,

    1. VT Digger

      Yeah, first bad take I’ve seen on here in years to be honest. More people running is the first step to breaking the duopoly.

    2. METx

      Obviously, this is too much democracy.
      DCCC will hand wring, tell voters to vote for the Democrat who will win vs Republicans, then that candidate will lose.
      “We really need to hold the voters accountable” – DCCC

    3. T_Reg

      When, as is pointed out, it’s winner-take-all. Ranked choice voting – without party primaries – would transform an abundance of candidates into a positive. Which is no doubt why political establishments hate RCV so much.

  2. jr

    ‘Extreme, Inexperienced or Controversial’

    This seems like authoritarian $hit-lib PMC chicken-choking, an “excess of democracy” kind of thing. For one, the voters may want an inexperienced candidate because experienced ones are cogs in the machine and the people are looking for someone to shake things up. And what does extreme and controversial mean in the context of American politics? Just look at our lineup of recent presidents.

    Obama murdered untold Libyans and let the banks rob homeowners, Clinton stuffed young men of color into jail in unprecedented numbers and sexually abused women, W got us into an illegal and incredibly expensive war in Iraq that we are still entangled in, and Biden is a doddering idiot and con-man who likes to paw women and girls and start fights with nuclear superpowers. Surely a political scientist is aware of these horrors, no? For the sake of completeness, Trump’s a monster too but I suspect he is exactly the kind of politician this guy is referring to.

    So what it all boils down to for this nitwit is that crowded primaries introduce people he doesn’t like. He just wants to see the people CNN and the NYTs tells him are legitimate. I’m not saying that the whacko’s he describes aren’t problems, I’m saying all politicians are problems. It’s in the nature of the beast.

  3. Tom Stone

    I recieved email confirmation that my mail in ballot has been recieved.
    I voted for no incumbents,2 Dims and one Thug.
    The Senate race had a slew of Candidates, I went for Garcia rather than “Eff all Politicians” however I expect Eff to get quite a few votes.

  4. Buckeye

    Filling the primaries with extremist candidates IS a subversion of democracy. In college 35 years ago my profs and fellow classmates (history, poli. sci. and strategic studies majors) all talked about this strategy coming out of the Orange County, California GOP and Lee Atwater’s diseased mind. This is NOT a new or healthy phenomenon.

    The Orange GOP came to Youngstown, Ohio (my home) 42 years ago and foisted a right-wing hair dresser named Lyle Williams down our throats to overthrow the most powerful Democratic congressional district in Ohio ( had been for 50 years). When we woke up (ooohh, “woke” is bad! /s) and dumped his fascist a** the GOP ran Sherriff Jim Trafficant as a Democratic “populist” proto-Trump loudmouth moron who did WHAT for us? Absolutely NOTHING but wear “full Cleveland” polyester suits, make us look like fools, and let the corporate bosses destroy our lives: all while taking bribes. And don’t blame NAFTA Billy Clinton for what happened in Youngstown; he’s actually a late-comer to the right-wing subversion ball.

    If the GOP/Conservatives/Capitalists cannot own the political seat, they will subvert that seat through primary interference of the Democrats with extremist candidates. Every attempt to rid us of Trafficant was met by a primary election filled with “mysterious” Democrats paid for by the GOP to dilute the vote and keep their puppet in power.

    And WHO was Jim Trafficant’s puppet master? None other than California’s Fascist Republican “B-1 Bomber” BOB DORNAN!

    Primary elections are run by a minority of voters, and now a “minority of minorities” is forcing their ideology down our throats nationwide.

    Look at SAN FRANCISCO (prosecutor) and LOS ANGELES (mayor). Right wing subversion has led to 20% of the voters (and less than that percentage of “citizens” ) to overthrow Progressive power and now force right wing thugs onto the MAJORITY.

    Don’t forget to blame the “poor oppressed proletariat” for being too lazy and selfish (“kitchen table issues!” *whine*) to look at the “big picture” of democracy and civic duty.

    Paul Street at Counterpunch is right: if you hate “bourgeois” Democracy THAT much, realize it’s the ONLY thing that has kept the Totalitarian wolf outside the door.

    1. hunkerdown

      In hunting cosmologies, ruling classes often style themselves cosmic game wardens in a bid to justify their rule. They rationalize their particular role as one of constructing urgent bulwarks against a dire apocalypse, such as the spirit world eating itself, iPhones vanishing out of their owners’ hands mid-call, the wait staff no longer subordinating themselves to the guest, dogs and cats living peacefully together (or some other racialist nonsense), and so on, and how dare we interrogate them. Obviously, these are mythical veils that have no necessary bearing on the material world, only on our willingness to accept it unconsciously or to shape it consciously.

      Outside of an imperial context, it is no longer necessary to rehearse imperial values, and therefore no longer necessary to uphold the structures of bourgeois “democracy”, which if we are being honest is only a vehicle for bourgeois power, i.e. property owners and developers. Thus the whole drama of English civil war reenactment becomes moot when the English relations of absolute subordination are no longer accepted. Council democracy or direct democracy become much more attractive and feasible options for collective material expression when private property, factionalism, partisanship, and other dictatorial structures are weeded out promptly and treated as disruptions.

      Cosmoi are very dispensable.

  5. Alex Cox

    The most telling thing for me about that Alaska ballot paper – with fifty candidates including multiple independents and several liberarians -is that there isn’t one Green candidate.

    I assume that the Greens are done for. Will Jesse Ventura resurrect the Reform Party in 2024?

    1. elkern

      US Green “Party” is really 40+ separate State Parties, with very little national coordination. CA & a few other States have thousands of Greens; [too] many other State Green Parties are really just a small core group of people. Looks like the AK Greens peaked around 2000; they don’t seem to have run any statewide campaigns since 2008. One or two energetic loudmouths can kill a State Party, just by showing up at all the meetings & wasting everybody’s time; OTOH, good, dedicated, cooperative people tend to get burned out shoveling against the tide. It’s not easy being Green…

  6. lyman alpha blob

    “The outcomes of primaries with many candidates are unpredictable and may result in extreme, inexperienced or controversial nominees who may not truly represent a majority of voters.”

    I take it that the author here is referring to Kamala Harris who got exactly zero primary delegates in a very crowded field and somehow wound up being the VP and a heartbeat away from the presidency despite being an incompetent moron who only got where she is by first sleeping with the right people and then capitalizing on the current IdPol craze.

    Or maybe he meant Trump…

  7. orlbucfan

    First of all, closed primaries stink! What’s wrong with having choices? Informed voters do their homework. Lazy voters don’t.

  8. George Phillies

    I am cynical enough to say that when I hear someone complaining about ‘extremists’ with some frequency they mean ‘someone who disagrees with me’.

    This large-number-of-candidates issue has not reached Massachusetts. In recent decades, there have been few primary elections here. In the November election, something like 3/4 of all candidates, including some Republicans, will run unopposed.

    The cause is excessively challenging ballot access requirements.

  9. drumlin woodchuckles

    Why is “good for extremists” a bad thing? Extremists are voters too.

    Probably this professional politicrat author is part of a movement to begin plans to outlaw extremists from voting. And this article is a “trial balloon”. Let us hope it goes over like a lead fartballoon in church.

  10. Darthbobber

    Author has reached the point there near the end where he treats the southern runoff primaries (whose main purpose was pretty clear) as a good thing. Also manages to equate them with ranked choice voting in terms of outcome.

  11. James E Keenan

    “With votes split among multiple candidates, a candidate may win with a small plurality while being disliked by, or disconnected from, the larger primary electorate.”

    Doesn’t this make a prima facie case for ranked-choice voting (which has the additional benefit of avoiding runoff elections)?

    If the sclerotic New York City Board of Elections can figure out how to do this, anyone can.

  12. Cristobal

    Given the state of our representative democracy, whose corruptión and incompetence have been amply documented here, I have a modest proposal. Representatives should be selected through a lottery of all eligible voters. The system could be perfected over time, but might actually end the legal bribery (Boss Tweed’s honest graft) we now have.

  13. Sound of the Suburbs

    The populists rise when the status quo is failing.
    The electorate are just looking for someone who might get things working again.

    “Why are the populists rising?” mainstream politicians
    Because you are failing.

    They are having trouble facing up to the reality of the situation.

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