It’s not my party, but I’ll vote if I want to 

Party primaries are increasingly non-partisan as party registration fades

AN EVER-GROWING WAVE of unenrolled voters is slowly overtaking Massachusetts political parties. Old Massachusetts Democrats and Republicans are dying off and more and more of their grandkids are ditching the two-party structure. As the overall number of voters keeps rising, the percent of undeclared voters climbs, while the share of both Democrats and Republicans shrinks modestly. This gradual change has been underway for several decades now, and shows no signs of letting up.

Unenrolled voters became the largest group in 1990, and an outright majority by 2008. The major parties have continued to dwindle in percentage terms. Among voters 18 to 22, for whom this was their first presidential cycle, just 29 percent are registered Democrats, and 9 percent Republican. With younger voters far less likely to choose a party, the relative share of voters who are unenrolled is likely to continue growing.

The Massachusetts primary system may be at least partly to blame. In some states, voters must register with the party to participate in the party primary. But in Massachusetts, unenrolled voters can participate in either the Democratic or Republican primary, simply by choosing that party’s ballot on primary day. Because of this approach, registering for a party confers no benefit other than the opportunity to participate in a few low turnout processes such as party caucuses and nominating conventions. And, in return for this rarely exercised privilege, voters are denied the flexibility to vote in the other party’s primary.

How are party leaders and consultants dealing with the rise of the unenrolled voter? Read here.

For registered Republican voters in Massachusetts, the current system is particularly problematic. They show up on primary day and are typically treated to a chance to endorse the only candidate available for each office, if there is any candidate at all.

The institutions of the party continue to perform critical functions such as nominating candidates, raising funds, and maintaining the legal and organizational infrastructure needed to participate effectively in state and legislative elections. They confer major advantages to candidates over those choosing to go it alone. Third-party runs in Massachusetts tend to yield the chance to participate in a few debates and voter support in the low- to mid-single digits, at best. The highest profile attempt to start a new party ended earlier this year with its founder, Evan Falchuk, throwing in his lot with the Democrats.

Falchuk’s failure to launch, combined with the lack of success of third-party hopefuls, leads to the inescapable conclusion that, for better or worse, the path to elected office is partisan. In addition to the legal, fundraising, and organizational advantages parties offer, candidates also get votes. For many voters, even many who are ostensibly independent, the party label is still the most important feature of a candidate. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump took the easier road, hitching up with parties with which neither of them had much history. Compare their relative success with Gary Johnson and Bill Weld, both respected former Republican governors who ditched the two-party system to run for president and vice president, going nowhere.

Parties are the vehicles for putting up successful candidates, but larger and larger shares of the voters voting in state elections are not registered members of any party. In the 2016 presidential election, 66 percent of voters in the Massachusetts Republican primary were unenrolled, not an unusual total in the few recent primaries the party has managed to muster. On the Democratic side, registered partisans made up a bare, 57 percent majority. If registration trends continue as they have been, the day may not be far off when the majority of voters in both primaries will be unenrolled.

One possible response to this is a great big shrug. Despite the fact that fewer and fewer voters are registered with a party, the vast majority of voters still identify themselves as aligned with a party when asked in a poll. They will fairly and reliably choose the same party when offered a choice, though affiliations do shift over time among some voters. Looking at parties in terms of transient feelings is appealing as a sort of post-modern tribalism, where membership is easily changeable based on your mood at the moment.

The relatively few remaining members of the parties, and really the smaller subset of activists within them, act as de facto gatekeepers to ballot access, culling the herd of candidates from which voters are allowed to choose. The members of each party trim out potential candidates in caucuses and conventions, exercises in durable and profound arcanity of which most voters are not even aware. This likely made more sense when the machinery of the party was of greater import, and membership more universal.

Now, if we accept the parties as centers of political gravity, rather than organized bodies with consistent membership, it makes it harder to defend their role in candidate screening. Unless the two parties can show they are able to regain membership, the changeable mass of voters who flock to each party should get more control of the candidates who make it through.

Meet the Author

Steve Koczela

President, MassINC Polling Group

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

About Steve Koczela

Steve Koczela is the President of The MassINC Polling Group, where he has grown the organization from its infancy to a nationally known and respected polling provider. During the 2014 election cycle, MPG conducted election polling for WBUR, the continuation of a three-year partnership. Koczela again led the endeavor, producing polls which came within one point of the margin in both the Massachusetts gubernatorial and U.S. Senate Elections. He was also lead writer for Poll Vault, WBUR’s political reporting section during the 2014 Election Cycle.

He has led survey research programs for the U.S. Department of State in Iraq, in key states for President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and has conducted surveys and polls on behalf of many private corporations. Koczela brings a deep understanding of the foundations of public opinion and a wide ranging methodological expertise. He earned U.S. Department of State recognition for his leading edge work on sample evaluation in post conflict areas using geospatial systems.

Koczela is frequent guest on WBUR as well as many other news and talk programs in Massachusetts and elsewhere. His polling analysis is often cited in local, state, and national media outlets. He currently serves as President of the New England Chapter of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (NEAAPOR). Koczela holds a Master’s degree in Marketing Research from the University of Wisconsin and is a veteran of the war in Iraq.

Meet the Author

Hannah Chanatry

Research associate, MassINC Polling Group
The heyday of party membership is likely over, at least for the foreseeable future. Across the county, people are choosing to affiliate less and less with institutions of many kinds. Massachusetts political parties are no different. They still serve many useful purposes, but some aspects of their roles should be reexamined.

Steve Koczela is the president and Hannah Chanatry is a research assistant at the MassINC Polling Group. The polling group is a subsidiary of MassINC, which publishes CommonWealth.

  • Mhmjjj2012

    Why should political parties select who appears and who doesn’t appear on the September ballot? Why can’t candidates simply file for the office with the local town clerk? While we’re at it, why continue with nomination papers? What’s the point of having candidates gathering signatures of registered voters to get on the ballot? It’s an unnecessary hurdle for potential new candidates and must be a bureaucratic nightmare for town/city clerks across the state going through the process of verifying voters signatures. If we can’t get rid of the two party system then let’s make it as irrelevant as possible.

  • Ed Cutting, Ed. D.

    My take is different — I believe that we are way overdue for new political parties, which may or may not bear the same names. This has repeatedly happened throughout American history. Trump is a populist, Clinton & Sanders are progressives, the split is along this axis, even here in Massachusetts. Neither party is truly speaking to its base, with party leaders disparagingly labeled as RINOs and DINOs. Here in Massachusetts, the “grassroots” of both parties are often at odds with a party leadership which they feel is trying to silence their views and prevent their candidates from making it to the primary ballot — party leadership often taking positions with which they vehemently disagree.

    One is a member of a party because the party advocates and seeks to advance the issues and values one holds dear. These parties don’t — their message often becomes little more than “we suck less than they do”, with voters quietly thinking “yea, you both do…”

    Party membership will continue to decline until Joe Sixpack can (accurately) articulate how the Baker, Patrick, & Romney Administrations differed from each other. (I’m not so sure I can beyond the hyperbole…) Party activism will return when people see it as being beneficial to them, and the average person doesn’t see that.