This is the Primary Problem with Politics Today | Three Things Thursday

Brett Maney
Senior Communications Manager
Unite America
Team
4.1.2021

The 116th Congress had an approval rating that averaged about 20%. Yet in 2020, when these leaders were up for reelection, 95% of them got reelected.

How is that possible? If Americans don’t approve of the job that their elected officials are doing, why do they reelect them? 

Turns out, most of us don’t actually elect them. 

This week, Unite America released a new report: The Primary Problem: How partisan primaries disenfranchise voters, distort representation, and fuel political division. The paper provides a new urgency for the reform movement, and we’ve got a lot to say about it. 

Despite record turnout in the general election this year, the majority of Congressional races had already been decided in the primary election months earlier. Because the majority of Congress serves a district that’s considered “safe” for one party or the other — due both to partisan gerrymandering and geographic self-sorting — the majority of general elections aren’t competitive. Which means the primary election is the only election that matters. 

But primary elections are low-participation elections. Not every voter is allowed to participate, and the majority of voters don’t

In fact, in 2020, we found that only 10% of all eligible voters cast ballots in primaries that effectively elected 83% of Congress. 

This is how Congress has hit record lows for approval and why our politics is so divided. Primary elections create a system in which a small, unrepresentative sliver of the population has an outsized influence on our political system. 

This is the Primary Problem, and it’s the primary problem with our politics today. 

So let’s dive in. 


  1. We have a video

We love an animated explainer video here at Unite America, and you better believe we produced one to break down the Primary Problem. Learn about the primary problem, what it is, and how we can solve it below:


  1. Nick Troiano: Party Primaries Must Go

A lot of the division and dysfunction we see today can be attributed to the Primary Problem dynamic. An extreme minority of the population is electing the majority of our Congress, and it’s warping the incentive structure of our political system. Instead of listening to all their constituents, elected leaders are listening only to the small base of their party that elects and reelects them. 

It’s why, after rioters stormed the Capital on January 6th, 147 Republicans still voted to overturn the results of the Electoral College — if they didn’t, they were all but guaranteed a primary challenger. 

This week, Nick Troiano breaks down the Primary Problem for The Atlantic, highlighting not only the forces driving the divide, but also how to solve it: nonpartisan primaries (combined with ranked choice voting!). We saw it pass in Alaska in November. We can do it again. 


  1. Denver Riggleman: a case study

In 2020, Congressman Denver Riggleman faced a primary challenger in his district; Riggleman, a Republican, had angered the base of his party after he officiated a wedding between two gay men. He was an independent thinker, and was working to represent the people of his district, rather than the party line. So a primary challenger emerged. 

In a drive-through primary held in a church parking lot, just about 2,500 people showed up to participate. Riggleman lost. In a primary that was decided by just 0.3% of his district, Riggleman was ousted, and his successor was all but guaranteed a victory in the general election. 

What happened to Denver Riggleman is a perfect example of the Primary Problem in action — a good leader gets taken out because he steps outside of party ideology. In an unrepresentative election, decided by a minority of voters, Riggleman loses, and is replaced by a more extreme leader. Riggleman wrote about his experience in the Richmond Times Dispatch. Check it out. 


It’s been a HUGE week at Unite America. Be sure to check out The Primary Problem on our website to read the report for yourself. 

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