Has the Top Two Primary Elected More Moderates?

37 Pages Posted: 26 Jun 2017

See all articles by Eric McGhee

Eric McGhee

Public Policy Institute of California

Boris Shor

University of Houston - Department of Political Science

Date Written: April 13, 2017


Party polarization is perhaps the most significant political trend of the past several decades of American politics. Many observers have pinned hopes on institutional reforms to reinvigorate the political center. The Top Two primary is one of the most interesting and closely-watched of these reforms: a radically open primary system that removes much of the formal role for parties in the primary election and even allows for two candidates of the same party to face each other in the fall. In this paper, we leverage the adoption of the Top Two in California and Washington to explore the reform’s effects on legislator behavior. We find an inconsistent effect since the reform was adopted in these two states. The evidence for post-reform moderation is stronger in California than in Washington, but some of this stronger effect appears to stem from a contemporaneous policy change—district lines drawn by an independent redistricting commission—while still more might have emerged from a change in term limits that was also adopted at the same time. The results validate some claims made by reformers, but question others, and their magnitude casts some doubt on the potential for institutions to reverse the polarization trend.

Keywords: polarization, primaries, reform, states, top two

Suggested Citation

McGhee, Eric and Shor, Boris, Has the Top Two Primary Elected More Moderates? (April 13, 2017). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2991673 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2991673

Eric McGhee (Contact Author)

Public Policy Institute of California ( email )

500 Washington Street
Suite 800
San Francisco, CA 94111
United States
415-291-4439 (Phone)

Boris Shor

University of Houston - Department of Political Science ( email )

Houston, TX 77204-3011
United States

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