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Is it time to retire the political campaign pivot?

The primaries are in the rearview mirror, general election campaigns are well underway, and candidates are reshaping their messaging for general election voters.

Sometimes the pivot is believable. Other times, not so much.

But isn’t it time to retire this tradition?  Shouldn’t we know which version of the candidate we’re really voting for?

The need to pivot is created by an election system that essentially ignores the interest of most Arizona voters. Partisan primaries force candidates to cater to base voters. Independent voters are underrepresented, yet they’re the ones who decide the general election. A candidate has to say one thing in the primary, then a few weeks later convince independent and swing voters they don’t really believe those things.

Sybil Francis

In short, candidates who emerge from the primaries got there by a process that is not representative of the general electorate.  Hence, the need to pivot.

When elected officials fail to represent the people, disdain for government grows.

Have you stopped to ask yourself why elections work this way?  And, maybe more importantly, does it have to be this way?

Surveys commissioned by the Center for the Future of Arizona underscore the gaps between what Arizona voters care about and what candidates talk about on the campaign trail. These surveys consistently find that most Arizonans agree on the most demanding challenges facing our state and want pragmatic solutions. The recent survey that resulted in the Arizona Voters’ Agenda is a prime example.

The survey found majorities of Arizona voters want to hear candidates talk about plans and solutions for our most pressing problems. They don’t care about politics and ideology.

They want candidates to share how they will:

Candidates for office or even elected leaders won’t change their campaign strategies unless we change the way we elect them.  We need a system in which every vote counts; one that encourages and rewards candidates who appeal to what most Arizonans want from their elected leaders.

A few examples of alternative ways to run elections are getting attention:

  • Instead of party primaries, some states use open primaries. All candidates – Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independents – are listed on a single ballot. In Washington, California, Nebraska, and Louisiana, the top-two vote-getters advance to the general election. In other states, four candidates advance. They can be of the same party or different parties. Open primaries can lead to candidates with broader appeal to the entire electorate. A USC study in 2020 found that this approach produced less extreme lawmakers.
  • Open primaries are sometimes used in tandem with another option: Ranked-choice elections, in which all candidates run on the same ballot and voters rank them from their first choice to their last. If a candidate wins a majority, they are the winner. If no one reaches a majority, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and the second-choice votes on those ballots are counted. This continues until someone wins a majority. Maine uses this system statewide, and cities or counties in another 12 states (including Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado) use it or are preparing to.
  • Redesigning the redistricting processes also allows elections to be more competitive and representative of voters. This could include giving independents equal representation on the citizen’s redistricting commission. And should the commission’s first priority be to create competitive districts, rather than putting that goal at the bottom of the list, where it currently is?

Do any of these reforms make sense for Arizona? Are there others we should consider? And most importantly: What is the best way to put “the pivot” behind us and elect leaders more closely aligned with the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Arizonans and who will provide pragmatic solutions to our most pressing priorities?

As we consider more representative systems of electing our leaders, please make sure to vote on Nov. 8! Your vote matters!

Sybil Francis is president & CEO of Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to create a stronger and brighter future for our state.

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