Polarization and Political Moderates

Political polarization, which is when elected officials take extreme positions, is frequently cited by political pundits as one reason for legislative inaction or gridlock. Many attribute polarization to decreased numbers of moderates who can work across party lines. Some proponents of Measure 90 argue that it will reduce polarization by facilitating the election of more moderate candidates. 

The thinking behind this perspective is that Republican and Democratic primary elections are of particular interest to more extreme voters within each of the major parties, voters considered by some to be the most likely participants in partisan primaries. Based on this rationale, there are some Democratic candidates who lean hard to the left while some of their Republican counterparts run hard to the right during primaries to appeal to their respective voter bases. If there was one primary ballot on which all candidates for an office that was sent to all voters, regardless of their party status, Measure 90 supporters think moderates could advance to general elections. This thinking is undermined by a recent political science paper whose key finding is that primary voters are actually pretty similar to other voters within their respective parties. This is a topic, however, that merits further assessment by political scientists.

A 2012 analysis of legislative polarization by political scientists indicates that the Oregon legislature is more polarized than 35 other states and is at a level on par with that seen in the U.S. Congress, which has a reputation for gridlock and low popular opinion ratings. In addition, this study didn’t find a consistent or strong relationship between polarization and the types of primary systems operating in each state. This finding is consistent with other political science research that consistently cautions about the effectiveness of primary reform in reducing polarization. However, the top two primary systems are relatively new and even these cautionary political scientists don’t rule out the possibility that primary reforms might reduce polarization. 

There has been more research in California than in Washington, and results from our neighbor to the south are mixed. It shouldn’t be a surprise that California research is not conclusive since that state adopted its top two primary reform in 2010 so only two primaries, June 2012 and June 2014, have occurred under the new system. 

At a spring 2014 forum at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkley two political scientists, citing research noted above, said that primary reform isn’t reducing polarization. Two other political scientists, however, presented initial California findings that indicated slight decreases in polarization in 2013 compared to 2011 before the open primary/top two system was in place. Most of the moderation, however, occurred on the part of Democrats. This is presumably one goal of business groups that support primary reform but whether these trends continue in California remain to be seen. It is also worth noting that some of the Oregon business groups contributing to Measure 90 have supported progressive positions on social issues. So there may also be concern about polarization linked to positions on these topics on the part of Republican elected officials. So far, however, Republicans have not moderated under California’s open primary/general election system. Maybe Republicans in California and Oregon are different and maybe this initial trend in California won’t continue. It is just interesting to note that if moderation trends continue, they may not be symmetrical between the two major political parties.

One factor in future trends could be California’s term limits that result in periodic open seats with more contested elections, increasing the possibility of changes linked to the primary system. Another California research challenge is teasing out how polarization is affected by redistricting by an independent commission, a reform whose implementation also affected 2012 elections.

A Washington political scientist writing in 2012 (after that state’s top two system was in place in 2008 and 2010) found that it was too early to determine how that primary change affected legislative polarization, especially since that state has a history of electing moderates and “maverick” candidates. Two factors cited as possibly contributing to this trend are long use of the blanket primary and voter registration without stating a party preference. In other words the backdrop for evaluating the effect of the top two primary on polarization in Washington is different from Oregon. Nevertheless, review of other aspects of the top two primary system led that political scientist to conclude that the Washington legislature hasn’t looked or functioned significantly differently than legislative bodies elected under a partisan primary.  

One way to assess how Measure 90 might affect polarization in Oregon is to consider how past elections involving primary challenges from the right or the left might have looked different under an open primary/top two general election system. 

In the May 2012 primary, Jeff Reardon successfully challenged Representative Mike Schaufler in the House District 48 Democratic primary. Schaufler was considered more conservative and received business community donations while Reardon got contributions from more progressive players, though labor community support was divided. Since this district was fairly safe for Democrats, Reardon went on to win in November. Under Measure 90, the primary fight would likely have been similar, though a split in the Democratic vote could have provided an opportunity for a candidate from another party to move on to the general election. But it seems just as likely that Reardon and Schaufler would have been the top two vote recipients and would have faced off again in the November election. Some may have seen that possibility as being unnecessarily expensive and redundant while others may think that the greater number of general election voters should have made the final decision and not the smaller group of Democratic registrants who essentially decided the final outcome in the May primary. 

While contested Democratic partisan primaries are relative rare in Oregon, challenges in Republican partisan legislative primaries have been more common. For example, moderate Vic Backlund, a former teacher who had voted for some tax increases, was defeated in May 2004 by primary challenger Kim Thatcher. One question when considering Measure 90 is whether a general election faceoff between the likely top two primary winners, Backlund and Thatcher, would have resulted in the November electorate retaining Backlund.

In May 2010, Republican Representatives Bob Jensen and Greg Walden successfully staved off primary challenges linked to their votes related to a ballot measure to increase business taxes and  income taxes paid by wealthy individuals. In their eastern Oregon Republican-dominated districts they had no meaningful opposition from Democratic candidates in the general election. Under Measure 90, their primary opponents would most likely have been the second highest vote-getter and would have advanced to the general election. In other words, Representatives Jensen and Walden would likely have faced their major primary candidates again that November. 

In May 2014, Republican Representatives Vic Gilliam and Jim Thompson faced primary challenges from the right since they were perceived to be too moderate. Gilliam won his primary while Thompson lost to his more conservative challenger.  Under Measure 90, Gilliam and his primary challenger would have likely faced off again in the November election but it seems that Gilliam would have won again. Under Measure 90 Thompson would have probably faced his primary challenger again in the general election but may have been more successful before the November electorate. 

Your interpretations, though, of how these inter-party challenges would play out under an open primary/top two general election system will inform your vote on Measure 90. It might also be helpful to read the discussion in Article 7 related to possible changes in campaign spending in same-party general elections.

Return to Measure 90 overview.

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