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February 13, 2016

Chuck Schumer’s Dream: A Democratic Nightmare

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.

  • RadDad1

    I can’t think of a better mess than Democrats using the California system. This is a state that has bankrupt cities and water supply problems and will soon become the Detroit of the federal system (or maybe the Illinois). Better to let each party work itself for leadership. The real problem is gerrymandering. Although California has changed a little it (and other states) needs to adopt the ‘Iowa’ system of creating districts based on their counties.

    • adastraperapathy

      I agree on redistricting reform. But on the financial situation of California, its government is in a surplus, and it remains the largest state economy in the United States, as it has been for decades.

  • Arizona Don

    Anyone who sees Schumer as a moderate isn’t playing with a full deck!

  • Richard Winger

    Kudos to the author of this piece, Nathan Gonzales, for pointing out that Schumer deplored the loss of Eric Cantor in this year’s Republican primary in Virginia, yet Virginia has an open primary! This is the first piece I have seen that points out this problem. Another factual error made by Senator Schumer is that he says most states don’t let independents vote in congressional primaries. That is not accurate. 17 states don’t let independents vote in Democratic primaries, and 20 in Republican primaries. Most “tea party” Republicans in Congress are from states with open primaries, including those from Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina.


    what about the three million unemployed Americans still without benefits?Senator Boehner has been a huge disappointment and a source of so many problems in the senate. He has single handedly caused the misery of more than three million unemployed families still without an unemployment extension since late last December. While these families waited patiently for an extension bill to be passed, the senator worked feverously to kill the bill by delaying the vote until it became almost impossible to pass. Instead of fighting for the unemployed, Mr.. Boehner fought for the Koch Brothers Oil pipeline bill to be passed. Clearly, the republican party represents the wealthy, and powerful in our country, not the common man. There are Still three million unemployed families in financial ruin due to the republican party’s total failure to help these needy families. They are without conscience and compassion.

    • Dutch6

      First of all…Boehner is not in the Senate…….he is the Speaker on the House of representatives. You should really brush up on your knowledge of the bicameral system we have rather then using a script provided by one of the”Community Organizers”. There are a lot of mistakes in them because they are only designed to rouse the masses for Liberal fundraisers.
      Second….this country has unemployed because we have a federal government that is the single largest obstacle to job growth and economic stability.
      Rather than benefits…how about creating a sound economy where people work. A “Traditional Value” in this country used to be that There is far more dignity and satisfaction to getting a paycheck than getting a “benefit”.
      Your class warfare tirade is about as well informed as your knowledge of what made this country great…

  • Connor Vlakancic

    California Proposition 14 breech birthed the TOP-TWO SNAFU. California just had its 2014 Primary Election with the record lowest voter participation in a gubernatorial election year (I was a California elections Precinct Inspector). The political party activists have stuck Californians with Tweedledee Tweedledum candidates (bad and worse). California taxpayers are financing the process for political parties to determine their anointed candidate. With the California ballot printed in five languages, in the most populated state in US, the cost to taxpayers is a heinous offense. Eliminate the political party Primary Election requiring political parties to consecrate their anointed candidate by their own internal controlled caucus nomination process. The political parties wonks can have their bath-house wonk-fest to themselves. We nonpartisan Independent voters got better things to do with their lives.

    The electorate deserves/needs the most candidates when voting for real in November. In a General Election must be with all candidates to be examined when voting is for real. The voters “grade” all the candidates from their first choice favorite candidate all the way down to their condemnation of the most repugnant candidate. This is actually what most angry and disfranchised voters most often say when they boycott voting because “their vote doesn’t count”. HOW THEY WANT to vote is against the repugnant candidates. Who they might think to vote “for” changes in every poll but who they despise and reject vote “against” is consistent in their mind and their actions. Understand the point of this… the candidate with the least number of first choice votes is NOT the same as the candidate with the most repugnant rejection votes. It is likely amazing who are some of these repugnant candidates.

    I explain this from the viewpoint as many times a California elections Precinct Inspector and a US State Department USAID Election Monitor in Europe elections. Back when California had write-in candidates they could not qualify as a California Sec. of State certified candidate until one week before the November General Election. Illinois does not suffer Top Two political electoral maleficence with
    write-in candidates able to mount an election campaign immediately after
    the Illinois Primary Election. Their are several very viable US Congressional candidates gaining news media attention because both of the political duopoly candidates are equally sordid disgusting indentured servants of the political status quo.
    P.S.: Hello Richard, long time no see. Have a nice Day :)


    The Republicans have been nothing but a severe disappointment to the American people. This is especially true for the more than three million unemployed families whom they denied an extension of benefits, since late last December. They have effectively forced millions of families into financial ruin and deep poverty. They have shown by their actions a true disdain and contempt for the poor in this country. They have voted against every bill that would benefit the unemployed, women, gays, and minorities in our country. They have prevented any positive change to take place by this president. They have thrown their fellow Americans under the bus, for their own selfish political agenda. They have aligned themselves with corporate America, and special interest groups, with deep pockets. They have proven clearly who they truly represent, and it’s not you or me.

  • daniel155

    Open primaries are not the solution.

    A solution might be to require runoffs when no candidate receives more that fifty percent of the vote. Currently, when there is an independent candidate; that candidate is viewed in terms of whether he or she will take votes away from the Democrats or the Republicans. So the candidate earns the mantle of a spoiler who can’t win and that you could waste your vote on.

    With runoffs, people can vote for an independent with the “wasting your vote” stigma and then decide between the two survivors in the runoff. Under this systems, some real independents (not Angus King or Bernie Sanders–they are just Democrats) might win and that could shake things up.

  • texaninsumatra

    I never thought I’d find myself agreeing with Chuck Schumer on anything, but he’s right. In fact, I’d go one step further and get rid of the two party only system because as my politically astute 14 year old (who has grown up all over the world because I’ve been on various foreighn assignments since before he was born) correctly obseved: “The two party only system isn’t good for The US. They spend their entire lives and careers figuring out how to get their own people elected or re-elected and throwing rocks at the other party instead of figuring out how to run the country, fix the economy, make the country a better place, and grow our position of leadership in the international community. They spend all their time talking about the problems or throwing rocks at each other instead of solving them.”

  • Jeff Putterman

    Schumer is a brain-dead old thief. He’s the only one who thinks what he thinks, if he does, is relevant.

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