Why Reforming the Primary Process Would Produce a More Productive Congress

Josh Kraushaar

Ask any moderate politician, good-government reformer or pundit to assess why Congress has become so gridlocked, and the blame will inevitably be directed at gerrymandering, the centuries-old practice of drawing congressional district lines in contorted fashion to protect incumbents. But when it comes to solving the problem of partisan polarization in Washington, gerrymandering is way down on the list of culprits.

That’s the conclusion of a provocative Washington Post column from George Washington University political science professor John Sides, who argues that gerrymandering wouldn’t change the uncompromising nature of the House Republican caucus or make House Democrats a more moderate bunch. “The most important influence on how members of Congress vote is not their constituents, but their party.… Democrats and Republicans are just polarized, no matter whether their district is red, blue, or purple,” he wrote.

To be sure, partisan gerrymandering in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, and North Carolina ensured an advantage for the party in charge, protecting some endangered incumbents. On the whole, gerrymandering netted Republicans no more than 10House seats, padding an already comfortable House majority. But it wouldn’t have given Democrats control of the House, even though they won a plurality of the national House votes cast. That discrepancy is more attributable to partisan self-sorting, and Democratic voters being clustered in dense, urban areas, as The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman has written.

Relying on nonpartisan commissions to redraw state congressional district lines would create more political competition but wouldn’t fundamentally change the nature of an increasingly polarized House.

Congress is now akin toa parliamentary legislative system, where nearly all Republicans are conservative and most Democrats are liberal. For most of American history, that wasn’t the case. Parties, historically, were ideologically diverse coalitions cobbled together by powerful leaders. Before legislation came up for a vote in Congress, it had to pass muster with the majority party’s members, making ideologically polarizing legislation tough to implement. Rockefeller Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats were a pivotal part of their parties up until at least the 1980s, and served as moderating mechanisms to partisan overreach. Over the last two decades, however, many of the last conservative Democratic holdouts in the South retired, lost to GOP opponents or switched their party affiliation to Republican. Liberal Republicans are now all but extinct. The fights in Congress aren’t about regional self-interest; they’re all about ideology.

At the same time parties are becoming increasingly ideologically homogeneous, more and more Americans are identifying themselves as independents. An August 2012 Third Way study found that both Republican and Democratic registrations dropped from 2008 to 2012 in five of the eight battleground states that register voters by party, while independent registrations jumped in six of the eight. In the states where parties hold closed primaries, the voter pool is more ideologically driven, making it more likely a hard-core liberal or conservative will emerge from the primary, no matter how competitive the district is. That’s true in 24 states for Republicans; 19 for Democrats.

Both registration trends and polls testing ideological identification show that, even in partisan, gerrymandered districts, there’s demand for more centrist candidates, if elections were designed in a way to empower more-moderate voters. 

California provides an instructive case study for the limitations of redistricting reform and the benefits of other more-ambitious changes tackling the demand side of elections. The state drew outsized attention for its nonpartisan commission dramatically redrawing its 53 congressional districts, but it was another lesser-publicized election reform — the top-two primary system — that made the state’s delegation friendlier to moderates. The redrawing of district lines increased political competition in the state, but guaranteeing the top two finishers moved on to the general election regardless of party changed the type of members elected.

In some overwhelmingly Republican and Democratic districts, the top two finishers were from the same party, making the minority party’s voters the crucial swing bloc. That created the spectacle of uber-liberal candidates appealing to tea-party conservatives while archconservatives were finding their inner progressives. One of the most liberal members of Congress, former California Rep. Pete Stark, faced a general-election matchup against fellow Democrat Eric Swalwell, the Alameda County deputy district attorney. Stark was endorsed by President Obama, Democratic elected officials, and organized labor. Attacking the congressman’s temperament, Swalwell appealed to moderates and the handful of Republicans in the district — and knocked off the 20-term member of Congress by a 4 percentage-point margin. 

In the conservative, newly drawn 8th Congressional District, the pragmatic Republican whose campaign focused on local issues, Paul Cook, comfortably defeated tea-party-backed challenger Gregg Imus, even though he finished second during the primary. In a matchup pitting two Democratic incumbents against each other, Rep. Brad Sherman claimed tea-party-friendly elements of his voting record while Rep. Howard Berman touted endorsements from more Republican members of Congress.

Meanwhile, the state’s delegation turned even more Democratic despite redistricting reform. Republicans held 19 of the 53 House seats preelection, and now hold only 15. But several ideological bombthrowers lost, and the incentives for moderation were set in place through the new primary system.

As Republicans publicly agonize over how to avoid nominating unelectable Senate candidates and centrist Democrats fret over the party’s move leftward, there are plenty of lessons to learn from tweaking the primary process. Talking about redistricting reform may be the cause célèbre, but the more useful solution lies in tweaking how parties pick their nominees.