Chuck Schumer’s Dream: A Democratic Nightmare

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 29, 2014 · 10:16 AM EDT

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer laid out his dream for a less partisan Washington recently. But the Democrat’s New York Times op-ed is giving some strategists in his own party nightmares.

“Polarization and partisanship are a plague on American politics,” Schumer wrote in the piece — titled, “End Partisan Primaries, Save America” — in which he identified the party primary system as one of the main causes of dysfunction on Capitol Hill.

The senator uses House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary loss as a curious first example. “The partisan primary system, which favors more ideologically pure candidates, has contributed to the election of more extreme officeholders and increased political polarization,” according to Schumer, who also blamed “ideologically driven voters” in the Virginia race.

But Virginia has an open primary, in which voters of all stripes could pick up a ballot. And some of Cantor’s supporters blame his loss on Democrats voting for college professor Dave Brat, not just “ideologically driven” Republicans.

Schumer goes on to prescribe a “national movement to adopt the ‘top-two’ primary,” similar to California’s current system. But even though the senator declared “the move has had a moderating influence on both parties and a salutary effect on the political system and its ability to govern,” his prescription may not be a solution at all.

There is plenty of research that finds a negligible relationship between primary rules and polarization. The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog detailed some of that previously and in a response post, “Charles Schumer’s Flawed Diagnosis of Polarization.”

In addition, the greater problem may not be the primary system but the participants in the primary, according to political scientist Morris P. Fiorina, who wrote in his 2009 book, “Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics”:

“[W]hen we are talking about a sixth to a tenth of the electorate voting in a subpresidential primary – often split between two parties — the likelihood is that we are talking about a primary electorate composed disproportionately of the hard-core wing-nuts in the two parties.”

“Still, it is doubtful the primary reform would produce an explosion in voter turnout that would bring a flood of moderates to the polls. After all, the midterm general election turnout is rarely more than 40 percent. Americans already are called on to vote more often than the citizens of other democracies, and it is unlikely that changing the primary rules would have more than a marginal effect.”

Since California has completed just one cycle with the top-two system, it’s still early to determine whether the primaries will moderate members’ voting habits. And in the specific cases of the 30th and 44th districts, Democratic Reps. Brad Sherman and Janice Hahn, both of whom won general elections against Democratic colleagues thanks to that system and redistricting, haven’t exactly sprinted to the center even though they needed the support of Republican voters in their November 2012 elections.

“It would be terrible for democracy and for voters,” one House Democratic strategist said about the California system. “It’s confusing to people and ultimately turns them off from voting. Plus, I think general election battles between candidates of the same party is potential disenfranchisement of voters.”

The latter could be a critical unintended consequence from Schumer’s proposal that could hurt his party in some states.

Democratic and Republican strategists who are focused on the House are still trying to figure out the new dynamic in California. The most famous example is when two Republicans finished in the top two in California’s 31st last cycle, a district President Barack Obama won in two elections, because a crowd of Democrats divided up that party’s share of the vote. Democrats came within a few hundred voters of replaying that nightmare this year.

But that same scenario could play out in other strong Democratic places such as New York or Massachusetts. A crowd of aspiring Democrats could divide up a larger share of the vote but finish behind a couple Republicans who split the smaller, GOP vote. All of a sudden, dozens of safe Democratic districts could be put into play because of the potential of a California 31 scenario.

“Committees and candidates would eventually figure out how to win them … but I think it’s a disservice to the voters,” the strategist said.

Of course the system could work in Democrats’ favor in Republican districts. But the potential for widespread, electoral chaos would likely increase across the board, including an influx of spending from outside groups, another problem Schumer cited.

“[The top-two system] increases the likelihood that outside money groups will try to pick people off in primaries,” concluded Democratic media consultant Travis Lowe of Three Point Media.