Starting in the late 20th century, a handful of countries, led by those, like Taiwan and Argentina, with acute fears of authoritarianism, embraced legal reforms to promote what political scientists call “intraparty democracy.” The primary elections that followed were still relatively exclusive, often with proof of party membership required to receive a ballot.
The worldwide vogue for primaries is “more tactical than ideological,” says Susan E. Scarrow, a political scientist at the University of Houston who is working on a book about party membership. Opposition parties are particularly eager to find ways to interact with supporters outside of election season.
“Some parties have created richer, more robust paths of engagement outside electoral politics — such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — that have paid electoral dividends,” said Michael Simon, who led Mr. Obama’s 2008 targeting team and later advised Egyptian opposition groups and candidates in Italy, Mongolia and Malaysia. “But it’s harder for, say, the center-left in Italy or France to do that.”
In France, the idea of a primary took hold in late 2008, when Terra Nova, a left-leaning think tank in Paris, organized a trip to the United States for French politicians and operatives to study that year’s presidential election. They met Democrats who had panicked at the frictions generated by the Obama-Clinton face-off but were coming to appreciate what the experience had done for the party long term.
The footloose delegate chase over all 50 states and assorted territories gave a generation of party operatives unmatchable practical training. The intelligence they had collected about voter, donor and volunteer behavior and preferences now belonged, permanently, to Democrats and their allies. (Data gathered during the 2008 primaries lives on in party computers and continues to play an important role in its statistical models.)
French Socialists who had participated in the trip returned from Washington in awe of the Obama campaign’s granular knowledge of the electorate. In their country, it is effectively impossible to create a database of registered voters. (Even though parties have access to the electoral rolls, legal restrictions complicate their use.) Thirty-six million people would vote in France’s 2012 presidential election, but Socialist campaigners knew little about any of them beyond the 120,000 party members who pay an annual fee equal to one-tenth of their monthly income.
In 2011, for the first time, the Socialists reached beyond that narrow circle. They offered a primary ballot to any French citizen who came to a neighborhood polling location and signed a declaration attesting that he or she shared leftist values. Of the 2.8 million people who did so, 580,000 opted to provide their contact information.
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