Arizona Senate: Is an Open Primary Good for McCain?

Read how Arizona's open senate primary may affect John McCain.
by | April 1, 2010

George Will has a column this morning arguing that if the Arizona Republican Party's decides to only allow party members to vote in its primary this year, that will aid J.D. Hayworth's conservative challenge to John McCain. But, so far as I can tell, what little empirical evidence is available supports the opposite conclusion.

Here's what Will wrote in the Washington Post:

McCain understandably wants the primary open to non-Republicans: A closed primary would favor Hayworth, many of whose supporters are the sort of high-octane conservatives who will vote in an Arizona August.

Hayworth's supporters certainly are high-octane conservatives. But, that doesn't necessarily mean they're Republicans.

I know of only one poll of the Arizona Republican Senate primary that has publicly available crosstabs. This survey was from Public Policy Polling in September, which was before Hayworth entered the race.

At the time, McCain's primary challenger was Minuteman leader Chris Simcox. But, looking at the Simcox-McCain matchup is a reasonable proxy for McCain-Hayworth because Hayworth and Simcox are ideological brethren. After Hayworth entered the race, Simcox dropped out and endorsed the former congressman.

In the PPP poll, McCain was doing much better with Republicans than independent primary voters. He led Simcox 69%-15% among Republicans, but only 52%-27% among independents. It is worth noting that the number of independents in the poll was quite small -- they were 11% of the respondents in a poll of 400 likely primary voters -- but at the very least this poll didn't support the case Will made.

Nor should it comes as any surprise that Simcox or Hayworth would be stronger than McCain with the set of independents who vote in Republican primaries. Many independents are independents because they come from the ideological fringe, not the ideological middle. Independents who vote in Republican primaries are especially likely to be to the right of registered Republicans.

In other words, Will seems to be making the classic mistake of conflating moderates and independents. In the PPP poll, McCain was strongest among moderates, leading Simcox 74%-9%. But, he also was strongest among Republicans.

This logic also has implications for the Republican primary for governor. Gov. Jan Brewer is facing vigorous challenges from her right. You might hear that a closed primary will doom her or an open primary will save her. But, in the September poll there wasn't much difference in how she was performing among Republicans and independents.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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