I was talking about this on Twitter earlier, but I wanted to lay down my thoughts here.
I’m a big supporter of political competition, but I think it matters what form the competition takes. I do not think that maximizing the number of candidates competing in the Democratic primary is likely to result in more meaningful competition, or an accurate translation of the will of the majority of voters.
One of the big lessons of political science is that party labels are incredibly important for conveying information to voters about candidates’ issue positions. A party label tells you most of what you need to know about what positions you can expect a candidate to have, so it’s a very useful shortcut for voters.
In races without party labels – like in states with non-partisan elections, or cross-filing in primaries for school board and judicial elections – voters are flying blind. Many do-gooders over the years have theorized that taking away the party label shortcuts would force voters to behave like political junkies and really study what individual candidates are proposing. In practice, that’s not what happens at all. Voters don’t do the extra research, and you see more incumbents getting reelected, and candidates with surnames closer to the beginning of the alphabet.
A Mayoral primary is like an election with no party labels. Since everybody has the same label, nobody has a label, and voters do not have an easy shortcut to tell them which candidates support which set of policies. Even when we try to use a really rough heuristic – who’s the more *progressive* Democrat? – I would argue that there’s very little agreement on what “progressive” means with respect to the municipal issue space.
Is a progressive someone who supports more development or less? More historic preservation or less? More business competition or less? A tax code that taxes land wealth most, or one that taxes business and wages most? City policies to favor long-time residents or neutrality between long-timers and new arrivals? More charter schools or fewer? I’ve read Democrats arguing on both sides of all these city issues, claiming their own position as the One True Progressive View. And of course I have my own opinions on this stuff, but the point is just that knowing somebody is a “Democrat” doesn’t tell you anything about how they’ll vote.
For the Mayoral competition to be meaningful, what you really need are different party labels to aggregate positions on the actual issues that are in play in city politics.
Reforms like fusion voting, ranked voting, and changes to the ballot access laws for minor parties would make this kind of local party competition feasible in future elections. But in 2013, the main shortcuts available to Pittsburgh’s Democratic voters are endorsements from party-aligned groups and higher-profile politicians. That’s why the competition for endorsements is so intense. All of the candidates for Mayor and City Council are trying to wrap themselves in the popular brands of better-known organizations and politicians to give voters information about what they’d do in office.
Endorsements are a pretty weak excuse for a party label though, and it gets harder to keep track of who’s been endorsed by whom the more candidates you have to choose from. I think maximizing the number of primary candidates is only going to confuse people, so I’d prefer to see a race between 3 or 4 candidates. The argument isn’t that less competition is better, just that there are only like 2 or 3 real “ideologies” aggregating the major disagreements on citywide politics, and it would be better to see a knock-down bareknuckle competition between the major perspectives than to have the major disagreements lost in a huge field where nobody but the political junkies can keep track of who’s taken what position.