Should I vote in Republican or Democratic primaries?

By Aristophanes


In 2016, I voted in my state’s Republican presidential primary, casting my ballot for John Kasich. It was mostly a protest vote; as a center-left voter, I couldn’t stand the thought of a President Donald Trump or a President Ted Cruz, the two Republican candidates then leading the nomination fight. John Kasich, on the other hand, mostly avoided the race-baiting, divisive rhetoric of his intraparty opponents.

Even if I didn’t fully agree with many of Kasich’s policy pronouncements, I still respected his tone of national unity and political moderation. I promoted his candidacy as a sign to other Republicans: this is what you should aspire to become.

The difference between Kasich and Trump, or Kasich and Cruz, seemed much greater in my mind than the difference between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. For that reason, I felt my vote would be more beneficial in a Republican primary than a Democratic one. So I cast my primary ballot for John Kasich. When his candidacy failed, and Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, I gladly submitted my general election vote for Hillary Clinton. Her’s was clearly the campaign closest to the center.

However, 2018 was different. My jurisdiction had virtually no moderate Republicans in the running for state and federal office. At the local level, nearly all Republicans were running in their primaries unopposed. Taking this into account, I decided to vote in my state’s Democratic primary, casting my ballot, again, for moderate candidates with ample experience.

I cast my primary ballot for moderate Democrats. In the general election, I again voted entirely for candidates closer to the political center than their opponents — all of whom just so happened to be Democrats.

In modern America, the Republican and Democratic parties are growing further apart, with Democrats heading to the left and Republicans running to the right. But our government runs best when both sides agree to compromise, supporting legislation that lies somewhere to the left of conservatism and to the right of progressivism. The greater the ideological gap between the parties, however, the less likely they are to come to a reasonable consensus. If nothing is done, partisan gridlock will only get worse.

Both sides are driving the divide, but the blame isn’t evenly divided. In the past few decades, congressional Republicans have veered much sharper to the right than their Democratic colleagues have to the left.

Take this chart from the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog, published in 2015:

Here’s how Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham explains the data:

Right around 1975, the Republican party sharply turned away from the center line and hasn’t looked back. The Democrats have been drifting away from the center too, but nowhere near as quickly.

In other words, political polarization is asymmetric. And that’s a problem for moderate voters, like me.

In the current two-party system, neither party maintains a permanent hold on power. Since the Reconstruction Era, control of Congress and the presidency has seesawed between Republicans and Democrats. The next several generations are likely to continue this trend.

That’s why, even as a center-left voter whose political beliefs align more closely with the Democratic Party than the Republican Party, I still believe it’s vital to the health of our federal government that both parties be as strong and equitable as possible.

Sure, if the Republican Party continues its rightward lurch, it may alienate enough voters to ensure Democratic victories for the next several election cycles. But any gains Democrats make under such a scenario will, at some point or another, be reversed. As I’ve written before, conservatism will never die (and, really, it shouldn’t die). When conservative leaders are in power, even left-leaning citizens like me should want them to succeed.

That leads me back to the main question of this article: In 2020, should I vote in the Republican or Democratic primary? Is it more important to try to reform a political party that is already lost, or to keep a separate party from going over the edge?

The answer, I think, depends on the candidacies we see in 2020. If moderate Republicans make a stand, rebelling against conservative orthodoxy in the primaries, I will gladly cast my ballot in their favor. If, however, 2020 is a repeat of 2018, where my jurisdiction had virtually no moderate Republicans on the ballot, I guess I have no choice but to vote in the Democratic primary.

The latter scenario terrifies me. It would be a sign that the Republican Party, in its current form, has truly gone ’round the bend. If that’s the case, only widespread electoral rebuke, with a dramatic loss for Donald Trump and the growing number of Trumpist Republicans in Congress, can truly make the party sane again.

And we should want a sane Republican Party, because we need a sane Republican Party. Left-of-center Americans would do well to realize that the United States will never be a healthy democracy without multiple responsible political parties. ■



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