With so many primaries still to come and the conventions four months off, here is an interesting question: If your state has yet to hold its primary or caucus, how do you maximize the value of your vote?
In primaries and caucuses, how you vote is the result of two decisions: which party and then which candidate. In the general election, people make just one of those decisions and the other follows. Although crossover primary voting varies, a 2014 study by political scientists Hillygus and Treul noted “it is rarely strategic. In other words, most crossover voting is thought to be done by voters who sincerely prefer a candidate who does not share their party affiliation.”
There are at least two situations where it makes sense in a primary or caucus to vote strategically; that is, for a candidate other than your top general-election choice:
1. If there is a de facto winner on your side, casting a vote in your party’s primary or caucus has little value. Your vote is likely more valuable in the other side’s preliminary contest. (e.g. Democrats in 1996, 2000, and 2012; Republicans in 1988, 1992, and 2004.) Note the similarities among the current Republican Presidential race and the candidates in early 1996: Pat Buchanan (outspoken conservative), Steve Forbes (outsider businessman), and Bob Dole (experienced Senator).
2. When, based on your values, you view the difference among your party’s candidates to be small and, at the same time, the difference among the other party’s candidates to be large, your crossover vote is more valuable. I distinctly remember in 1976 my parents having this big argument because one of them was supporting Mo Udall and the other Jimmy Carter. Then and now, it seems like an insignificant difference. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford squared off for the Republicans in the first of Reagan’s three Presidential campaigns that redefined his party and the country. At different times in 2008, voters in both parties arguably had this motive for crossing over.
You could benefit by voting in the other party’s primary for two reasons:
1. You might vote against someone who you think would really damage the country. This is essentially a hedge. If my candidate loses in the general, who would I be the most happy with as president who is not in my party? Some Republicans might think “anyone but Hillary” or “anyone but Bernie” and use their primary vote for the Democrat they would find preferable. Some Democrats might have the same feelings about Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or any of the others.
2. You could vote for the candidate in the opposing party that you believe your party’s candidate more easily beats. Rush Limbaugh started “Operation Chaos” after John McCain had the 2008 Republican nomination sewed up, encouraging Republicans to cast votes in remaining Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton. That would weaken the Democrats by continuing the in-fighting.
I find it interesting that crossover/strategic voting isn’t more common. A significant reason for this is likely in-group versus out-group preference. If you identify as Democrat, even if you think Hillary Clinton has the nomination wrapped up, voting Republican feels bad. (Disloyal to “your” party or candidate? Unlucky? Bad karma?) Especially in closed primaries, where you have to register your political affiliation in advance to participate, this can be a huge barrier to entry. Sports fans recognize this. If you asked an Eagles fan how much you’d have to pay them to wear a blue and white shirt around the house on Sundays, it would probably be a nominal amount. If it was a Cowboys jersey, however, the price would soar, and it might be no amount of money, period.
This in-group preference is so strong that it’s even hard for the supposed beneficiaries to encourage. Mitt Romney’s recent speech about Donald Trump demonstrated this. Instead of making a plea to the out-group (Democrats), he encouraged Republicans to splinter into whatever factions would deny Trump individual primary victories. Apparently, it is easier to get Republicans to split further than it is to ask Democrats to play a role in choosing the Republican nominee.
If, as a lot of people in both parties believe, Donald Trump’s candidacy is the most important issue at stake in the next four months, both arguments for crossover/strategic voting could appeal to Democrats. They could feel a Democratic primary vote is less valuable because Hillary Clinton has a big lead. Or they could believe the differences between Hillary and Bernie Sanders are minor compared with the Trump vs. Cruz vs. Rubio vs. Kasich brawl on the Republican side.
Either way, the situation reminds us that primaries and caucuses are much different than general elections. Strategy and behavior enter the equation in ways that don’t occur in general elections.