Primary Elections and the Quality of Elected Officials

49 Pages Posted: 2 May 2013

See all articles by James M. Snyder

James M. Snyder

Harvard University; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

Shigeo Hirano

Columbia University

Date Written: 2012


In this paper we argue that the literature underestimates the value of primaries, because it focuses on overall average effects. The value of primaries is likely to vary across situations. We argue that primary elections are most needed in safe constituencies, where one party's candidate will have a large advantage in the general election -- even if that party's candidate is "low quality". In safe constituencies, it is the dominant party's primary that in most cases determines the winner. Moreover, if the main role of elections is to select good candidates, then primaries in open seat races are particularly consequential. In this paper we show, first, that many voters live in states, counties or congressional districts that are dominated by one party. In fact, this is true for about 60% of all congressional districts. Thus, safe constituencies loom large in the U.S. elections. Second, we present evidence that primary elections are especially competitive for the advantaged party in constituencies where one party has a clear advantage in terms of voter loyalties. Finally, we present evidence that a party's primary elections appear to especially good at selecting "high quality'" types and at punishing poor performance in constituencies where the underlying voter loyalties in the constituency clearly favor that party. Primaries, therefore, appear to be especially valuable when effective two-party competition is lacking.

Suggested Citation

Snyder, James M. and Hirano, Shigeo, Primary Elections and the Quality of Elected Officials (2012). EPSA 2013 Annual General Conference Paper 65, Available at SSRN:

James M. Snyder (Contact Author)

Harvard University ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)

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Shigeo Hirano

Columbia University ( email )

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New York, NY 10027
United States

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