Apparently Voters Don’t Know Much About the People They Vote For

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California has recently enacted two electoral reforms. In June 2010, we passed an open primary initiative that allowed the top two finishers to go on the general election, even if both are from the same party, and a few months later we passed a second initiative that created a nonpartisan commission to draw district lines in congressional races. Supporters of these initiatives hoped that they would push Californians to vote for more moderate candidates.

Over at the Monkey Cage, a team of researchers reports on a study suggesting that the open primary law failed to accomplish this. Their methodology strikes me as a bit iffy, so I’d take it with a grain of salt, but I was interested in what their data said about why the open primary system seemingly failed to change things:

While voters are generally quite moderate and were willing to cast crossover votes (roughly 12% of our participants who voted for a major party candidate did so), they largely failed to discern ideological differences between extreme and moderate candidates of the same party, particularly if they were challengers.

….Of particular interest in the second graph—which includes only Republican candidates—are the respondent placements for District 24. Abel Maldonado is a well-known moderate politician in California….His potential constituents rated him at roughly 5.25 on the 7-point scale. However, they gave almost the same rating to his fellow GOP challenger Chris Mitchum, a little-known actor and Tea Party candidate.

Again, I’d take this with a grain of salt. It’s one study, the sample sizes are fairly small, and it’s early days for open primaries. Still, I’d like to see further research specifically on the question of how accurately voters assess candidates. Certainly it’s my sense that plenty of primary campaigns are brutal affairs in which it’s crystal clear who the more extreme candidates are. But maybe that’s true only in the high-profile races that tend to get national coverage. In others, maybe voters really don’t have much of an idea of who’s the centrist and who’s out on the fringe. I’d certainly be curious to see this studied further.


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