Public opinion about primary reform. Does it matter?

One of the more interesting exchanges during the first day of the Iowa Election Reform Conference is whether public opinion about presidential primary reform really matters if primary reform is an elite and party driven process.

Caroline Tolbert presented some work, I think done in collaboration with Jeff Karp and Todd Donovan, where they asked survey respondents how they felt about a variety of proposed reforms (national popular vote, rotating regional primaries, a national primary). If I remember the results correctly, the survey respondents did not like the current system unless they were in one of the early primary states, but did like the idea of a national primary.

What surprised me was the division in the room when someone asked why public opinion mattered in this context at all. Isn’t the group we want to target if we’re trying to reform our primary system the elites? And besides, how much factual information does the public have about the primary system in the first place.

I wasn’t completely satisfied with the responses from Caroline and Jeff, but it may be because I am also a skeptic about whether public attitudes really matter much in this context. If this were an opinion poll conducted by a messaging firm, and they were trying out various framings of different reforms, simulating what a public debate over the issue might be like, I might be more convinced. But a straight survey item: do you like or dislike the current system? Does that really matter to an election reformer?