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Why primaries? The party's tradeoff between policy and valence


  • Gilles Serra

    () (Nuffield College at the University of Oxford, UK)


Our theory studies why and when political parties choose to hold competitive primary elections. Party leaders can decide the nomination by granting resources and endorsements to a chosen candidate. Alternatively, they can delegate the candidate selection to the party's rank and file by holding a primary election among multiple candidates. The benefit of a primary is to increase the expected valence of the nominee. Its cost is the ideology that primary voters might induce on the party's policy platform. We find that primary elections are more likely to be used when the potential primary voters are not too moderate and not too extremist. We also find that opposition parties and weak parties benefit from primaries more than incumbent parties and strong parties do. Intriguingly, extremist parties are more likely to adopt primaries than centrist parties are. Contradicting previous research, we find that primaries are more attractive when candidates' skills are less salient for voters than candidates' policies.

Suggested Citation

  • Gilles Serra, 2011. "Why primaries? The party's tradeoff between policy and valence," Journal of Theoretical Politics, , vol. 23(1), pages 21-51, January.
  • Handle: RePEc:sae:jothpo:v:23:y:2011:i:1:p:21-51

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    Cited by:

    1. Hummel, Patrick, 2013. "Candidate strategies in primaries and general elections with candidates of heterogeneous quality," Games and Economic Behavior, Elsevier, vol. 78(C), pages 85-102.
    2. Rafael Hortala-Vallve & Hannes Mueller, 2015. "Primaries: the unifying force," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 163(3), pages 289-305, June.
    3. Michael Peress, 2013. "Candidate positioning and responsiveness to constituent opinion in the U.S. House of Representatives," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 156(1), pages 77-94, July.
    4. James F. Adams, 2015. "Competing for votes," Chapters,in: Handbook of Social Choice and Voting, chapter 12, pages 201-217 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    5. Thomas Braendle, 2013. "Do Institutions Affect Citizens' Selection into Politics?," Working papers 2013/04, Faculty of Business and Economics - University of Basel.
    6. Bernard Grofman & Orestis Troumpounis & Dimitrios Xefteris, 2016. "Electoral competition with primaries and quality asymmetries," Working Papers 135286117, Lancaster University Management School, Economics Department.
    7. James Adams & Samuel Merrill, 2013. "Policy-seeking candidates who value the valence attributes of the winner," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 155(1), pages 139-161, April.
    8. Anderson, Simon P & Meagher, Kieron J, 2012. "Choosing a Champion: Party Membership and Policy Platform," CEPR Discussion Papers 8941, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    9. Thomas Braendle & Alois Stutzer, 2017. "Voters and Representatives: How Should Representatives Be Selected?," CREMA Working Paper Series 2017-05, Center for Research in Economics, Management and the Arts (CREMA).
    10. James Adams & Samuel Merrill, 2014. "Candidates’ policy strategies in primary elections: does strategic voting by the primary electorate matter?," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 160(1), pages 7-24, July.
    11. Rainer Schwabe, 2015. "Super Tuesday: campaign finance and the dynamics of sequential elections," Social Choice and Welfare, Springer;The Society for Social Choice and Welfare, vol. 44(4), pages 927-951, April.
    12. Pablo Amorós & M. Socorro Puy & Ricardo Martínez, 2016. "Closed primaries versus top-two primaries," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 167(1), pages 21-35, April.
    13. Fernando Aragón, 2014. "Why do parties use primaries?: Political selection versus candidate incentives," Public Choice, Springer, vol. 160(1), pages 205-225, July.
    14. Shino Takayama, 2014. "A Model of Two-stage Electoral Competition with Strategic Voters," Discussion Papers Series 525, School of Economics, University of Queensland, Australia.
    15. Evrenk, Haldun & Lambie-Hanson, Timothy & Xu, Yourong, 2013. "Party-bosses vs. party-primaries: Quality of legislature under different selectorates," European Journal of Political Economy, Elsevier, vol. 29(C), pages 168-182.


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