Democrats Consider Opening, While GOP Closing, Primaries to Independents

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Citizens In Five States Vote In Primary Elections
The door to independente participation seems to be swinging open among Democrats, closed among Republicans.Photo: Jeff Swensen/2016 Getty Images

If you have been following the very public discussions of the Sandernistas about what to demand at and after the Democratic National Convention in exchange for enthusiastic support of the party nominee, you’ve probably noticed that “open primaries” are on most lists. In some respects that’s just a contemporaneous impulse based on Sanders’s unquestioned appeal to Democratic-leaning independents in this year’s primaries. To the magical thinker, some sort of party gesture in favor of banning closed primaries retroactively shows Bernie should have won after all. But the discussion also reflects a long-standing argument — which, ironically, party “centrists” used to regularly make — that encouraging independents to participate in Democratic primaries is a good way to grow the party base and to prepare Democratic candidates for general elections. 

Meanwhile, on the Republican side, the talk at both the grassroots and elite levels about primary rules is very different:

Conservatives, still reeling over the looming nomination of Donald Trump, are pushing new Republican primary rules that might have prevented the mogul’s victory in the first place: shutting out independents and Democrats from helping to pick the GOP nominee ...

The advocates are finding a sympathetic ear at the very top of the party. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has long supported closed primaries, but has never had a constituency to back him on it.

Now you could say these opposite impulses have in common a “sore loser” motive. Still, they represent a very different level of self-confidence about the appeal of the two parties’ core ideologies: the Democratic Left, which used to call itself the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” thinks a broader party base would be more progressive, while the Republican Right wants as small a tent as possible.  

Having said all that, it’s unlikely either party will immediately change the system. For one thing, primary access rules are generally set by state governments and (when allowed by state laws) state parties; only some cumbersome and politically perilous carrot-and-stick process is available to the national parties to influence these rules. It will be particularly troublesome for state governments to set up primaries that comply with both parties’ rules if they are tugging in opposite directions. Additionally, implementing a uniform closed-primary system like so many Republicans want would be problematic in states that do not and have never had party registration. Beyond that, there are other ways to skin the cat and make it easier or harder for independents to participate in primaries, such as manipulating re-registration deadlines (opportunities to easily change party affiliation at the polls or caucus-site make the open-closed distinction largely irrelevant).

But without question, if either or both parties want to send a big bold signal to independents by passing some sort of resolution or hortatory rules change at their conventions, they can do so. Among Democrats, more than enough Clinton Democrats from open-primary states would likely join Sanders delegates to create a comfortable majority for some “open the primaries” gesture in Philadelphia. And among Republicans, a close-the-primaries gesture is precisely the sort of measure that could provide an outlet for frustrated delegates bound to Donald Trump on the first ballot but free to disrespect the mogul on rules and platform votes. But Republicans should beware: All else being equal, closing doors is far less popular than opening them.