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Primary Problem

Super Tuesday Ep. 2024: The Return of the Primary Problem

Key takeaways from the start of congressional primary season

Carlo Macomber
Research Manager
March 8, 2024

The Top Line: Five states held their congressional and presidential primaries concurrently on Super Tuesday, thus kicking off congressional primary season. Unfortunately, this also marks the return of the “Primary Problem.” Like in 2020 and 2022, we expect more than 80% of U.S. House seats to be effectively decided in partisan primaries held months before the November election. In fact, on Super Tuesday alone, 23% of the entire U.S. House was effectively elected in low turnout primaries.

The Start of Congressional Primary Season

Besides being the biggest day on the presidential primary calendar, Super Tuesday also marks the start of congressional primary season. In all, five states held their presidential, congressional, and state primaries concurrently. While it is always an exciting day when Americans go to the polls and make their voices heard, the start of the 2024 congressional primary season is not all positive: It marks the return of the “Primary Problem.”

Unite America has closely tracked congressional primaries since 2020 to analyze how few Americans effectively elect the U.S. House. Because of gerrymandering and geographic self-sorting, the vast majority of congressional districts are “safe” for one party or the other. In these districts, the only election that matters is the dominant party’s primary. In 2020, the last presidential election year, Unite America found that just 10% of voting age Americans effectively elected 83% of the House in partisan primaries. In 2022, a midterm year, only 8% elected 83% of the House. 

For anyone who is new here, this is what we call the Primary Problem — the phenomenon by which a very small number of unrepresentative primary voters effectively choose the vast majority of the country’s representatives. The Primary Problem creates perverse incentives for elected officials who have to appeal to their unrepresentative primary electorates in order to win reelection. This fuels polarization and leads to distorted representation for the majority of voters.

Unfortunately, this year promises more of the same. In all likelihood, more than 83% of the House will be effectively decided in primaries long before November. Contributing to the problem is the fact that 15 states hold closed congressional primaries, which prohibit 15.7 million registered independent voters from participating in primary elections.

What Happened on Super Tuesday?

The Primary Problem was on full display last Tuesday, March 5. The five states that held their congressional primaries — Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina, and Texas — have a combined total of 115 congressional districts. According to the Cook Political Report, 107 of these districts are “safe” for one party or the other. Because of California’s nonpartisan primary system (more on that later), four of the state’s safe seats will not be decided until the November election. The other 103 safe districts in these five states, though, were all effectively decided in primary elections held on Super Tuesday. That’s 23% of the entire U.S. House of Representatives. 

While California is still counting votes, the other four states have nearly completed the counting process, allowing for more thorough analysis. All four of these states held partisan primaries. In total, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Texas have 63 congressional districts, and 61 are “safe” for one party or the other, meaning they were effectively decided on Tuesday. Participation in the elections that decided these seats was very low: Just 7% of the four states’ age eligible voters participated in the dominant party primaries that effectively elected 97% of their combined U.S. House delegations. This data can also be broken down by each state:

Moreover, these four states combined for a total of nine open seats (districts where the incumbent is not seeking reelection) this cycle, and all nine seats were safe. Therefore, they were effectively decided in low turnout partisan primaries on Tuesday. Open seat elections are particularly important as they can often shape a district’s representation for years to come (given the sky high congressional incumbent reelection rate). 

Contrast these four states with California, which held nonpartisan primaries on Tuesday. Nonpartisan primaries require all candidates to compete on the same ballot — regardless of party affiliation. Because of its reformed primary system, the state can have general elections between two members of the same party, especially in districts that are safe for one party. When this occurs, the district’s representation is determined in the general election — when a much larger and more representative electorate participates — as opposed to a low turnout primary election. Additionally, research suggests members elected from open seats in nonpartisan primary states are up to 18 percentage points less extreme than their counterparts from closed primary states.

This year provides a perfect example of how California’s nonpartisan primary system increases competition and therefore empowers more voters. California has seven open U.S. House seats in 2024, six of which are in safe districts. In half of those districts, two candidates from the same party are set to advance to the general election. Typically, safe districts — where the Democrat or the Republican is effectively guaranteed to win because of their party’s dominance in the district — limit competition. Thanks to California’s nonpartisan primary, four of the state’s seven open seats will be decided in the November general election, a far better outcome for voters than what occurred in the partisan primary states. This outcome is almost entirely attributable to California’s nonpartisan primary system.


Overall, Super Tuesday’s congressional primaries delivered what we expected: Very few voters effectively decided the vast majority of U.S. House races. This minority of voters also tend to be the most politically extreme — contributing to our nation’s growing polarization. Partisan primaries incentivize leaders to appeal exclusively to this minority, rather than to their entire constituency. 

California showed us that nonpartisan reforms can inject more competition into November elections that would otherwise be decided in primaries. Every voter should have a voice in deciding who represents them: Nonpartisan primaries are one way to help make this happen.