The Plurality Problem: Plurality Primary Victors Hurt Parties in General Elections

34 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2024

Date Written: January 26, 2024


Most states do not have majority thresholds for primary elections, which means that “plurality primary victors” (who won the primary with less than 50% of the vote) often advance to the general election. We examine whether plurality primary victors harm their party in general elections. Building on the divisive primaries literature, of which “plurality primaries” share several characteristics and likely mechanisms, we hypothesize that candidates who win their primary election with a plurality of votes perform worse than majority primary victors, relative to expectations. We examine US House, US Senate, and gubernatorial partisan primaries from 2010-2022 in which three or more candidates ran. We find that plurality primary winners underperform relative to expectation and that in competitive districts, this translates into a reduced likelihood of winning the general election. We conclude by discussing how potential reforms, such as ranked choice voting (RCV), might change the partisan and representational consequences of plurality primaries.

Keywords: Primary elections, General elections, plurality winners, electoral reform, ranked choice voting

Suggested Citation

Harbridge, Laurel and Hutchinson, Rachel, The Plurality Problem: Plurality Primary Victors Hurt Parties in General Elections (January 26, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

Laurel Harbridge

Northwestern University ( email )

2001 Sheridan Road
Evanston, IL 60208
United States

Rachel Hutchinson (Contact Author)

FairVote ( email )

8484 Georgia Ave
Suite 240
Silver Spring, MD 20910
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics