Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy > Vol 2 > Issue 3

Primaries and Populism: Voter Efficacy, Champions, and Election Rules

Betsy Sinclair, Department of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis,, USA, , J. Andrew Sinclair, Department of Government, Claremont McKenna College, USA,
Suggested Citation
Betsy Sinclair and J. Andrew Sinclair (2021), "Primaries and Populism: Voter Efficacy, Champions, and Election Rules", Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy: Vol. 2: No. 3, pp 365-388.

Publication Date: 13 Nov 2021
© 2021 B. Sinclair and J. A. Sinclair
Elections,  Bureaucracy,  Campaigns,  Democracy,  Electoral behavior,  Electoral institutions,  Government
Top-two primaryprimary electionspopulismefficacy


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In this article:
Populism and Primaries 
Data: Preferences Over Rules 


In an era of rising populism, who supports primary election reforms? Scholars frequently characterize the demand for political reforms as driven by a motivation to force politicians to follow the will of the people. Recent changes such as California’s “top-two” primary were intended to further “good government” ends and to help elect moderate or compromise-oriented candidates. Frustrated voters, and those with a low sense of political efficacy, may turn to populist politicians. The open question: will supporters of more populist leaders also support primary reforms? Using a large-sample survey implemented just prior to the contentious 2020 general election, we ask voters about their preferences over primary type. Our findings draw attention to the underdeveloped connection between populism and reform. While, in general, voters with low political efficacy are more likely to favor the top-two rules, we also find support for primary election reforms is not symmetric between party wings. Voters tending to favor liberal champions express greater relative support for rules like the top-two primary than supporters of the more populist conservative champions. In addition, the results are broadly consistent in asking voters about more “open” party primaries versus more “closed” ones. We conclude by discussing the implications of these results both for scholars interested in parties and populism and for the study of primary elections.



Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy, Volume 2, Issue 3 Special Issue - The Political Economy of Populism, Part I
See the other articles that are part of this special issue.