Partisan Paradoxes: More Open Leadership Contests Do Not Necessarily Make For Better General Elections

The politics of leadership selection are becoming increasingly important in American and British politics. In Britain the Labour party will see a leadership contest after Angela Eagle and Owen Smith submitted challenges to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. These challenges took place after Corbyn lost a confidence vote amongst Labour MPs 172-40. In the United States, Donald Trump has won the Presidential nomination by attacking much of the Republican establishment. It is tempting to see the success of populist movements, especially the one that elected Jeremy Corbyn, as indications the strength of democratic values within political parties. This misses the extent to which party leadership contests are decided by a small and unrepresentative electorate. Paradoxically, placing constraints on the influence of leadership contest electorates (through the use of super-delegates or by requiring a certain number of MPs approve of leadership candidates) can lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the views of the general electorate.

The extent to which leadership contests reflect the views of the broader public is often over-stated. Leadership contests are usually low turnout affairs, and as a result, even large victories in leadership contests can be won with small proportions of the population. Corbyn’s victory in the 2015 Labour leadership contest was won with just 251 417 votes. This was 60% of the voters who voted in the contest, but nowhere near the more than 9 million votes that left Labour as the official opposition in the 2015 election. Even in the United States, where primaries lead to high levels of participation in leadership contests, Trump won just 14 million votes. This pales in comparison to the nearly 61 million votes that Mitt Romney needed to get just 47% of the vote in the 2012 Presidential election. What looks like a large populist movement in a leadership contest can often be a quite small when it is compared with size of the electorate for general elections. It is a mistake to assume that a leadership candidate who rides a wave of populist support to a leadership convention victory necessarily has large amounts of support amongst the broader population.

One could argue that leadership contest provide parties with an indication of which leader is most popular with the broader electorate. The problem with this argument is that voters in a leadership contest are not representative of the broader electorate. Voters in leadership contests are more partisan, and closer to the extremes of political spectrum than most other voters. Individuals who are unsure about which party they will support in general elections, or who hold moderate political views that lead them to switch their vote between parties, tend not to vote in leadership contests. Additionally, voters who do not hold strong views about politics, and are thus not likely to have strong ideological positions, tend not to participate in leadership contests. To the extent that outsider candidates such as Corbyn or Trump draw new voters to their parties, they tend to be smaller groups of voters from the political extremes. The new Labour members that have joined the party to support Corbyn tend to be voters who are to the left of Labour. The voters that Trump has added to the Republican party tend to have positions on immigration that are more extreme than the Republican’s past positions. These groups of voters look like they represent larger movements than they do, because the number of people voting in leadership contests is much smaller than the number of people that vote in general elections. A populist movement that wins a leadership contest is not necessarily representative of the general electorate.

The nomination of extreme candidates can hurt the quality of a country’s democracy. When parties nominate extreme candidates they significantly constrain the choices of general election voters. The choice of Donald Trump as the Republican nominee leaves moderate Republicans without a Presidential candidate that reflects their views. The same is true of moderate Labour voters, who may have difficulty supporting a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour party. The danger of allowing too much populism in leadership contests is that it creates general elections where moderate voters have to choose between candidates selected by much smaller and more ideological extreme factions within the major parties. When this is the case, large numbers of voters in the general electorate can be left without candidates that represent their views.

There are a number of ways that parties can guard against the nomination of candidates who would unpalatable in a general election. In the United States the Democratic party includes super-delegates in its convention, who can push back against Democratic primary voters that try to nominate a candidate that is unpopular with the broader electorate. In the British Conservative party only the leadership candidates who finish first and second in a vote of Conservative MPs are allowed to try to win the votes of the broader party membership. In the British Labour party MPs tried to reassert their influence over leadership by voting overwhelmingly to express no-confidence in Corbyn’s leadership. These mechanisms allow for party members to influence leadership selection, but balance that influence with MPs and other party members’ views.

These constraints on leadership elections are often derided as undemocratic, but they can help to ensure that leadership races produces leaders that reflect the interests of an electorate that extends beyond parties’ members. MPs, congress people, and other super-delegates almost always have a strong interest in their party being successful in general elections. MPs and congresspeople will often do better in general elections if their leader is popular and worse if she is not. Party elites have strong incentives to push for selection of leaders that have a broad appeal within the general electorate. These leaders, while they may not always be as representative of members of the party, are often more representative of the views of general electorate. The party elites that are pushing back against the populist movements that have led to the selection of Trump or Corbyn as party leaders are often doing so in the hope of replacing them with leaders that hold views that are more palatable to the general elected, even if they are not preferred by a majority of party members.

More democratic leadership selection processes do not necessarily lead to the selection of leaders that are more representative of the public. Because leadership contests have voters than tend to be more partisan and more ideologically extreme than the rest of the public, they can lead to the selection of leaders that large portions of the public find unpalatable. When parties elect extreme leaders, they can make it difficult for moderates in the electorate to find general election candidates that represent their views. Allowing parties to place some constraints on the ability of party members to elect leaders can be important to ensuring that parties’ leaders are capable of effectively representing a much broader general electorate.


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