Our last-in-the-nation primary? Let it be.

No good case for moving up date of party nominating vote

THE 2020 MASSACHUSETTS US Senate primary may well turn out to be one of the year’s most contentious races. At a minimum, it will provide some clues on the future direction of the party and the role in it of old guard liberals such as Sen. Ed Markey. It will also be the nation’s last primary of the year – it doesn’t take place until September 1.

This year’s late primary is certain to provoke a fresh round of head scratching among Massachusetts residents. Why is our primary so late? How does the date influence the chances of the two Democratic candidates? And should we rethink the timing of our primary?

All of the New England states have historically held their primary elections in the fall. This is a legacy of the raft of Progressive Era reforms implemented in these states – along with the practice of off-year municipal elections, nonpartisan local elections, and direct democracy provisions such as the ballot initiative. All of these reforms were implemented with the goal of improving the quality of our political decisions.

The National Municipal League recommended in its 1951 report that states should hold primaries as late as the first week of October – far later than what any state does today. Its argument was that if held any earlier, primaries would be “an unnecessary bother and expense to the candidates and to the public as well.” Supposedly, the late primary would limit campaign spending, increase voter turnout in primaries, and increase voter turnout in the general election.

For candidates, the story was that primary election victors would not have to dismantle and reassemble their campaign apparatus. A candidate running in a spring primary must assemble a campaign team early in the calendar year, and then must choose either to keep campaigning over the summer, which increases campaign costs, or to effectively run two entirely different campaigns, separated by a period of several months. Someone who wins a September primary, on the other hand, can use this victory to generate momentum to raise money and to rally volunteers for the two months that follow before the November general election.

There is some evidence to support the arguments in favor of late primaries. We know that most Americans do not pay very much attention to political campaigns until after Labor Day. States that hold their primaries during the spring, such as Illinois and Texas, have been plagued by very low primary turnout. Voters simply are not attuned to politics at the time. An early primary can also increase the sense of “buyer’s remorse” – voters may be saddled with unsatisfactory nominees by the time the general election approaches, and the issues most at stake may change by the fall. Summer primaries, as well, have been said to be unsatisfactory because they tend to occur while people are vacationing. A September primary occurs after school has begun and vacation season is over.

There are, of course, some drawbacks to late primaries. Divisive primaries can damage a candidate and prevent the party from rallying around a nominee in time for the general election.  In Massachusetts this happened in the Democratic gubernatorial primary of 2014, where Martha Coakley faced stiff opposition from Steve Grossman and Donald Berwick. Some worry that this will happen to the Democrats on the national level in this year’s presidential election. Yet research on divisive primaries has been inconclusive – for every instance of a candidate who has had difficulty rallying disgruntled supporters of his or her opponent for the general election, there is another instance of a candidate who has ridden a tide of enthusiasm generated by the primary win to a general election victory.

As heated as this debate gets, most claims about the effects of primary dates are based on anecdotal evidence.  In my own research I conclude there is no evidence that primary dates actually have any effect on turnout, competition, spending, or any other measurable attributes of candidates or elections.

Changes to primary dates have, however, been a perennial concern of state legislators. There were 76 different bills to adjust state primary dates introduced in 31 different states between 2000 and 2014. These frequent proposals suggest that anecdotal beliefs about primary timing have always influenced state legislators’ thoughts on primaries. In many instances, the date changes may reflect short-term partisan goals – one party or even one candidate believes that a change would be in their interest, and acts accordingly.

Massachusetts has not been immune to such claims. As recently as 2018 legislation to change the primary date to May was introduced in the Massachusetts Senate. At the start of that year, Secretary of State William Galvin had difficulty finding an acceptable September primary date that did not conflict with the Jewish high holidays, a situation that renewed talk of considering an earlier primary date.

On the other hand, some Democratic presidential candidates have called for a shorter, later primary season – arguing that the earlier primaries begin, the more ammunition an incumbent president has to use against his opponents. (Massachusetts holds its presidential primary in March, separate from the primary for congressional seats and state offices.)  And a recent report by the Bipartisan Policy Center suggested moving all state primaries to the summer, arguing that a uniform nationwide primary date would increase turnout.

This contradictory set of claims raises issues that could well influence the Massachusetts US Senate primary. Markey and his challenger, US Rep. Joe Kennedy, will have to compete for media attention with the presidential general election campaign in full swing.

The Senate campaign may seem to some like an afterthought to some, but its outcome could well be mined by the media for its implications about the future of the Democratic Party. Should Kennedy win, it could well be taken as a sign that voters are fed up with the Democratic old guard. If the election is close, supporters of the losing candidate could well make the claim that the outcome would have been different had the primary been held earlier.

It seems unlikely that the race will influence the Senate general election, as the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary is alleged to have done. And the primary could drive turnout for other races on the ballot – if there are surprises in any of the Democratic House primaries, or if Republicans pick up a House seat in Massachusetts in 2020 (not likely, but not inconceivable) it may all be traced back to the September primary.

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What should we do about this? I’d argue that we should be skeptical about any calls to move our primary. The other options on the table all have their own problems. Politicians, political consultants, and party leaders in the state have a stock of knowledge about navigating the existing primary system. It is actually quite rare to have a competitive primary challenge such as the one we’re facing – you have to go back at least 30 years to find a primary challenge to a Senate Democrat who wasn’t either too conservative for his state or enmeshed in a scandal.  We should avoid trying to draw big lessons from the race.

Robert G. Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University, director of research at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.