Open Vs. Closed Primaries — And Why They Matter

After Tuesday’s presidential primaries, dubbed by some as Super Tuesday Two, many media outlets have remarked that Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders are gaining momentum in their respective parties. Their wins may have been representative of a gain in momentum with voters, but each of their delegate counts were not significantly altered.

Cruz saw some impressive wins over the weekend, and a surprising win Idaho by 17 points on Tuesday, but he is still lagging behind Trump by almost 100 delegates. He needs to win Florida or Ohio, or both, in order to close the gap.

Bernie Sanders, despite his poll-defying win in Michigan, still trails Hillary Clinton by about 600 delegates overall, and needs 60 percent of all remaining delegates to win. His win in Michigan will help him in Ohio next week. Next Tuesday, five states will hold primaries or caucuses, and it is expected that Clinton will increase her delegate lead.

Sanders’ win in Michigan was largely due to the “open” style of primary that they hold. Independent voters in Michigan are allowed to participate in the primaries. Sanders won the independent vote by 43 points. Illinois and Missouri will hold open primaries next week, and it is possible that independent voters will be galvanized to support Sanders in those states.

Closed primaries could prove to bring losses for both Sanders and Cruz. In a closed primary, independent voters cannot vote, and only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote for their respective parties’ leaders.

Clinton has seen great wins in closed primaries. Cruz saw a win in Idaho, where the Republican party holds a closed primary. The GOP has been launching attack ads against Trump, and Cruz could see significant wins with Republican voters in states like Florida where they hold closed primaries.

States are allowed to hold varying degrees of open and closed primaries. Voters in Ohio are asked to declare their party affiliation on the day of a partisan primary by requesting the respective party’s ballot.

With the record numbers of voter turnout during this election cycle, typically unaffiliated voters in Ohio could tip the balance. In particular, Sanders could see a win via independent voters as he did in Michigan.

Featured image by Josh Thompson, available under a Creative Commons license.