The Virginia GOP’s Loyalty Pledge

Last month, the Virginia Republican Party asked the state’s election board to require Republican voters to sign a loyalty pledge to accompany their ballot in the March 1 primary. The request was approved. The statement will read, “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican.”

Although Virginia has open primaries, state law allows parties to request that voters be required to sign such a pledge or statement of party affiliation. The state Republican Party required such a statement in the 2000 primary, when George W. Bush’s candidacy was being hotly contested by John McCain. In 2012, the party proposed a similar pledge, but withdrew its request before the primary.

On December 27, Donald Trump took to Twitter to condemn the loyalty pledge, which some see as an attempt to limit turnout of his supporters:

On January 6, three Trump supporters (who are also black pastors) filed suit in federal court, claiming that the loyalty pledge would discourage poor and minority voters and impose unfair burdens on them, and that it would amount to a literacy test.

I find this story interesting on at least two different levels. First, it’s another battlefield in the ongoing saga of Trump vs. the establishment GOP, and beyond that, it raises some timely questions about the Republican Party and its image in the general electorate. Many GOP analysts see a need to broaden the party’s appeal to independents and new voters; this pledge will interfere with such efforts. Maybe that’s why the Democratic-controlled election board “gleefully approved” the Republicans’ request (in the words of a conservative writer).

Indeed, some prominent Republicans have already expressed deep misgivings about the loyalty pledge. Conservative activist Russ Moulton wrote to fellow Republicans:

If we are going to get our party back on the right track, we need these disaffected folks back participating now, not turned away by a statement. We need them to get our Party back.

Primaries are taxpayer-funded evolutions, not party processes. As a result, people instinctively believe they have a taxpayer right to participate in Virginia primaries. We are trying to push a rope uphill, trying to convince voters they should accept they have no right to participate in our primary nominations unless they are Republicans – only to hurt our eventual nominee with outraged, turned-away voters.

He also pointed out that the party could have chosen to hold a convention rather than an open primary — and in that case, only Republicans would express their preferences for the presidency. Which leads me to the second point of interest in this story: why do some states have open primaries at all?

The US is unique in having government-organized primaries. In other countries in which parties vote to select their candidates for office, the voting is organized (and paid for) by the parties themselves, for their own members only. Proponents of open primaries argue that they promote participation by allowing anyone, not just members of the party, to have a say in the process of nominating candidates for the general election — and that since primaries are public affairs held by the government, it’s unfair to exclude nonpartisans.

Some states have moved beyond the open primary to the nonpartisan blanket primary, in which there is a single ballot for all parties involved. In this case, the voter not only doesn’t need to be a member of any party, she doesn’t even need to choose a ballot, because they are not differentiated between parties. The top two candidates advance, regardless of party — so the general election could come down to two Democrats opposing each other, or two Republicans. This is also known as a “top two” primary and has been adopted in recent years by Washington and California (though not for presidential elections). It was intended to blunt partisan polarization.

But there is an important drawback to open primaries as well. Members of other parties may “cross over” to help nominate a weak candidate for the general election, thereby helping their own party. This is precisely what happened in Vermont in 1998, when many Democrats helped make Fred Tuttle, a retired dairy farmer, the Republican nominee in the race against incumbent Senator Patrick Leahy. After winning the nomination, Tuttle endorsed his opponent, who won re-election by 50 percentage points.

Proponents of closed primaries argue that they preserve for party members their freedom of association. Why, they ask, when choosing the standard bearer for a political party, should those who are not affiliated with the party have a right to participate?

Primaries have a great deal of importance in the American system partly because of the two-party system — the fact that most of the time, there will only be two viable candidates for a given office. This makes it more important for candidates to be vetted through some sort of preliminary contest. If we had a multiparty system in which several candidates could viably compete, primaries would be much less significant. And parties would have a better chance to establish strong and distinctive identities.

These thoughts lead to some basic questions. What is a party? What is it good for? More to the point, how does our nation’s party system contribute to, or hinder, our democracy? These are all very important questions, in my opinion, and too big for this blog post to answer fully. (I would recommend, for more on the distinction between parties and party systems, Giovanni Sartori’s masterful 1976 book Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis.)

But it seems to me that basically, a party (in the electoral context) is a group that promotes a particular vision of how government should act, based on ideological principles that are generally shared by its members. Having well-considered, coherent visions to offer voters is a useful function because it means that they can use party labels to gain a better understanding of the differences between candidates, and of their own place on the political “spectrum”.

A major problem in our system is that the two major parties are both “big tent” parties, which they have to be in order to have any hope of winning a majority in elections. But being “big tent”, that is, having a broad appeal, is not very compatible with having a coherent, well-articulated ideology. Both major parties are broad coalitions of disparate interests. There are Wall Street Republicans and evangelical Republicans, and of course they may agree on some things, but to say that they share a common ideology would be a gross overstatement. Similarly, some Democrats are strongly pro-labor and favor protectionism, while others (such as the most recent two Democratic presidents) tout the benefits of free trade. They may have some tendencies in common, but they don’t share a coherent, unified ideology.

To illustrate the problem, it will help to be more concrete about what I mean by “ideology”. I don’t know what the best definition of this word is, but I do see a way to “operationalize” it for my purposes. Consider a simplified model of politics, in which there are eight “big issues”:

  1. defense/foreign policy
  2. management of the economy/trade policy
  3. health care
  4. education
  5. the environment
  6. sexuality/religion/culture
  7. gun control
  8. welfare

(This is not meant to be a definitive list. It’s merely for purposes of illustration.)

These can each be considered a dimension, along which people could adopt a variety of positions. But in this radically simplified model, let’s assume that for each of these issue dimensions, there are only two possible positions, A and B. For example, on the issue of foreign policy, A might stand for “hawkish” and B for “doveish”.

Then “ideology” can be thought of as a set of positions taken on each of these eight issues. For example, the set {1-A, 2-A, 3-B, 4-A, 5-B, 6-B, 7-A, 8-B} would qualify as a well-formed ideology. In other words, it’s a permutation of all combinations of issue-positions.

With two options per dimension, and eight dimensions, we have 28, or 256 different possible ideologies. That’s quite a few! (And remember, this model is highly simplified.) Is it possible to locate the Democrats or the Republicans in such a vast ideological space?

Well, no, unfortunately it is not. There’s a variety of opinion about free trade within the Democratic Party, for example (as already noted). And there are hawkish Republicans (“neoconservatives”, as some of them are known) and those who are far more isolationist (“paleoconservatives”). Myriad other examples could be mentioned. With so much variance of opinion within parties, how is the average voter supposed to figure out which one best matches his own beliefs? They do not coherently represent well-defined ideologies. So, the American party system performs poorly in what should be one of its main functions: to signal to voters precisely what the parties stand for.

Open primaries exacerbate this problem. Even if party activists manage to enunciate a clear agenda to move their party to a coherent ideological stance (in spite of the “big tent” problem mentioned earlier), they’ll have a hard time getting there if their nominating contests are beyond their control, beyond the control even of all the people who make up the party.

We can have a multiparty system, if we work hard for it. (Note that “work hard” does not necessarily include having to amend the Constitution, which makes no mention of political parties.) And if we ever get there, closed primaries will be the way to go. Even before then, they might help move us in the direction of a multiparty system by more firmly establishing the connection between ideologies and parties. I am not suggesting we should have 256 parties or more. I think there is some “clustering” of issues that occurs when people work out their world-views, and some combinations will be rare and/or inconsistent. Somewhere between 2 and 256 there is a number of parties that would allow for the healthier functioning of democracy.

Having this goal in mind is what makes the story in Virginia so interesting at a deep level. It highlights the conflict that arises between the short term and the long term. For the 2016 cycle, Trump is making a strong point that the party’s loyalty pledge may turn off independents and non-partisans, and thereby weaken the party’s appeal. Furthermore, it seems to contradict the spirit of the state having open primaries.

But from a longer-term perspective, it makes plenty of sense that the Virginia GOP is trying to keep outsiders out. As a vehicle to represent an ideology, a party needs to be able to determine for itself who it is.

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3 Responses to The Virginia GOP’s Loyalty Pledge

  1. Joanne Richards says:

    Giovanni Sartori published a more recent book (2005) on a similar subject “Parties And Party System”. Although I haven’t read it, I plan to try my best to fit it into my reading list of must read books.

    • Dan Eckam says:

      That sounds like a republication of his 1976 book. I’ve become a fan of Sartori and pretty familiar with his list of works.

    • Dan Eckam says:

      But the new edition includes a short new preface by the author, along with a new introduction by political scientist Peter Mair. I’m happy to learn of that (and budget tip: all of the new material is available in preview mode on Amazon, and the original printing can be obtained in good used condition for $2.95).

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