In the 2022 primary elections, many incumbent legislators have lost their seats to more extreme candidates, and Trump-endorsed newcomers are winning races against established professionals. Both are the culmination of ongoing trends. Rachel Porter finds that primary electorates, especially on the Republican side, are far more extreme than general electorates. And primary voters have increasingly been preferring amateur candidates over experienced politicians, partially because those candidates can now raise early national money. While that can mean more diversity in the candidate pool, it may also drive congressional dysfunction.
Guest: Rachel Porter, University of Notre Dame
Study: “Estimating the Ideology of Congressional Primary Electorates.”
Matt Grossmann: How Primary Elections Enable Polarized Amateurs, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
In 2022 primary elections, 12 incumbent members of Congress and 198 state legislators have already lost their seats, and Trump-endorsed newcomers are winning races against some established professionals. How are primary elections changing our politics? This week I talk with Rachel Porter of the University of Notre Dame about her work on primaries, including a new paper Estimating the Ideology of Congressional Primary Electorates. She finds that these primary electorates, especially on the Republican side, are far more extreme than general electorates, and primary voters have increasingly been preferring amateur candidates over experienced politicians, partially because those candidates can now raise early national money. That can mean more diversity in the candidate pool, but it also may be driving congressional dysfunction.
Our conversation started with an explanation of primary electorates, the ideology of those who vote in congressional primary elections. Start with a summary of this new paper, Estimating the Ideology of Congressional Primary Electorates. What did you find?
Rachel Porter: So, the project is kind of dealing with this question or this broader assumption that we have about the nature of congressional primary electorates. So we like to say that every constituency is different, but we don’t really know a lot about if and how primary constituencies are actually different. So the paper kind of has three main takeaways. First, that there is indeed variance in primary electorate ideological extremity across space. So from one state to another, or even within states from one district to another, we’re seeing a lot of variability in the ideological extremity of primary constituencies. Beyond that, we’re also seeing perhaps somewhat surprisingly, quite stable estimates for ideological extremity across time. So from a midterm to a presidential election, we’re not seeing terrible moderation in primary electorates ideological extremity. The thought being that maybe in presidential election years, we’ve got more participation, we’ve got more of that average voter turning out rather than the types of folks that we think of who participate in primaries, those people who are very politically tuned in, who might be more politically extreme, who are going to be very politically sophisticated. But we’re finding that no, primary electorates maybe moderate a little bit in those presidential election years, but our estimates stay quite stable.
Then lastly, we find asymmetric extremity by party with Republican primary constituencies skewing a lot more ideologically extreme than Democratic primary constituencies. And this does fit with other metrics we have for polarization. So for instance, if we look at elite polarization in Congress, we see that Republican incumbents tend to skew a little bit more extreme than Democrat incumbents. So this fits with our broader understanding of polarization. But the biggest takeaway of this paper is just kind of challenging scholars to think about how primary constituency ideology changes across space and how we have to account for this when we’re trying to answer questions about elite behavior, voter behavior, and how these things interconnect.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re in the midst of the primary season and we have a wonky audience here, but we probably still need to back up a little bit and say how are we… We’re characterizing something called the primary electorate. So those are those people that show up in a congressional primary like we’re having over the summer. But how do we characterize them as having an ideology?
Rachel Porter: So what we’re thinking about is we’re thinking about how they behave in contrast to the average general election voter. So if we gave these folks a battery of questions and we said, “Where do you stand on these points?” With the average general election voter, we would think of them as being quite moderate, they might have some partisan skew. But with primary electorate voters, we would expect them to be a little bit more extreme in their positions. We would expect them to maybe be more on the fringes of the party. So being more like, not maybe exactly like this, but a little bit more like an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on the Democrat side and a little bit more like a Chip Roy or a Marjorie Taylor Greene on the Republican side.
And we think about these constituencies differently because we know that not every American shows up to vote in the general election, and we know that in even smaller number of voters show up in primary elections. So we’re talking about a subset of a subset of Americans who are showing up for these elections that aren’t falling on a consistent date. Primaries fall at a variety of times across the spring, through summer, and even into the fall with the latest primaries happening in September. So you really need to be tuned into politics to even know that a primary election is going on. So the types of people who are showing up to vote in these elections are going to be a very particular subset. They’re going to have… Or at least we’ve we’ve previously thought, and what this paper is somewhat demonstrating, is they’re going to have some systematic differences than the average voter who’s going to show up in November for the general election.
Matt Grossmann: So obviously even if the same people showed up and they were divided into two groups, Republicans and Democrats, instead of in the general election all voting in one group, then they’d be moving apart and be more on the right and the left. But you’re talking about something in addition to that, which is basically who votes in these primary elections causing these differences. Is that right?
Rachel Porter: Yes.
Matt Grossmann: So we have a lot of voters. So are we describing the median voter? Or who are we describing as-
Rachel Porter: Yeah. With the primary electorates, when I’m saying the primary electorate’s ideology, we’re talking about the median voter in the primary electorate. But this is going to be a different median voter than the general electorate. Because we’re looking at this subset of a subset, the median voter, who, if we’re thinking about them being in the middle of a line, we are now taking an even smaller subset of voters. And that line that’s in the middle is going to be moving to the left for Democrats, the right for Republicans. And it’s going to be moving more towards the extremes.
Matt Grossmann: So primary elections have been implicated as a potential source of polarization. And this paper helps tease out some of the mechanisms by which that might occur. What are those?
Rachel Porter: Primary elections have been around popularly since the 1960s, and we haven’t been talking about them causing polarization since the 1960s. So obviously, primary elections themselves aren’t necessarily causing polarization or contributing to polarization. What this paper shows and some of my other research tries to demonstrate, is that we see other changes in electoral dynamics that have placed this greater importance on primary elections and potentially led to these polarizing consequences that we’re seeing. So one of the things that I talk about, and one of the things that my work and other work has pointed to as a culprit, is the increasing safety or decreasing competitiveness of congressional elections. So in the 1970s and ’80s, we thought of general elections as quite competitive for both parties in congressional districts, where a Democrat or Republican could win the race. And this wasn’t universal, but we’re talking about maybe 40% of districts where you would see a partisan shift from one election year to the next.
And now going into 2016, 2018, 2020, 2022, we’re looking at less than 10% of districts having this kind of two-party competitiveness. And what we’re seeing is that the vast majority of the congressional districts are deemed as safe for one party over the other. And that means that when someone wins their primary election and they belong to the party that that district is safe for, the general election’s a foregone conclusion. We know that there’s enough partisans in that congressional district to elect that nominee that they’re going to have an easy election to Congress. So without this two-party competition in the general election, candidates only really need to worry about winning the primary election. They need to worry about besting people within their own party. And then once they get to the general, it’s kind of a cake walk.
So this places added import on these primary election voters. And if we’re trying to appeal to primary election voters and we’re trying to win them over, and we know that they’re systematically different than general election voters, that they’re going to be more politically attuned, that they’re going to hold you accountable for the positions that you take, and that they might indeed in some cases be more ideologically extreme, we might see candidates emerge or incumbents change their behavior to better fit these types of voter preferences.
So this is kind of one issue that we see is that with increasingly safe congressional districts, we see greater motivation for ideologically extreme candidates to emerge, and we see greater success among these candidates in some instances. But then we also see candidates changing their behavior to try to fit these primary constituents. And that’s not always successful, because as I show, primary electorate ideology is variable. In certain districts, we see more moderate primary constituencies. So being ideologically extreme isn’t going to necessarily gain you any points with voters in those districts. But in those places where that’s what voters want, it seems that we are we’re indeed getting that.
Now, in addition to that, so in concert with these increasingly safe congressional districts, we’re also seeing increased competition in primary elections. So we’re seeing more and more candidates emerge in these races, which when you’re an incumbent, that’s not good news. That means that you’ve got people chomping at your ankles to try to take your seat from you. And that means that you have to even more attention to primary voters, because you’re not, again, facing that competition in the general, you’re facing it in the primary.
So in 2022, it’s in a redistricting year. And in redistricting years, we tend to see greater candidate emergence, but we’re seeing record numbers of candidates emerging. It’s well over 2,000 candidates across all congressional districts. And that’s up on, I think it was close to 1,700 in 2012. And that’s just for the primaries we’ve had so far. We have more primaries coming. So it’s probably going to be closer to 2,500 candidates. In some races, we’re seeing 15 candidates emerge. That’s a lot of competition. How do you stand out? How do you get voters to notice you? By being extreme, by taking more extreme positions, by being an outsider, by framing yourself as a renegade for the people, that’s going to that get you noticed. And we see these candidates winning because of it.
Matt Grossmann: And we have a lot of attention on the primary challengers to incumbents, especially the ones that happen to win, but we know that that’s still pretty rare. So do we know anything about the kind of frequency of these mechanisms? Is this mostly polarization whenever the incumbent decides not to run? Is it incumbents responding to the threat of getting primaried, even if those primaries aren’t that successful?
Rachel Porter: Yeah, it’s some of both. But from my work on a ongoing book project that I’m working on with Sarah Treul at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we are focusing a lot more on this incumbent replacement mechanism. So what we find is we look to new members of Congress and we say, “Okay, what’s the composition of this new freshman class? Who is more ideologically extreme? Who are these kind of outsider candidates who seem to be becoming quite successful at winning office?” And we kind of trace backwards where they’re coming from. And what we find is that they are indeed emerging in these safe districts. So they’re a Republican in a Republican safe district, they’re a Democrat in a Democratic safe district. And they tend to be winning in these open races, so places where the incumbent has decided to retire, realized it’s not worth trying to run again, there’s too much competition. This is where we’re really seeing these kind of ideologically extreme candidates, or in some cases, just kind of outsider, amateur candidates emerging and succeeding and replacing these well-tenured incumbents. And as you said, there are some instances where you see the Laura Boeberts of the world and others, Harriet Hageman just this past week, defeating incumbents, but these are more exceptions rather than the rule. But they are the kind of showy cases of what types of candidates are becoming more and more successful today.
Matt Grossmann: So why is it that Republican electorates are more extreme than Democratic electorates on average? Is it just that Republican voters are more extreme? Or is it the composition of these districts that causes that? And what do you think the effects are?
Rachel Porter: So I haven’t really disentangled this question well. So this is one of the questions where I don’t have a good answer for you. But we do see the effects playing out. We do see more of these extreme candidates being elected on the Republican side than the Democratic side. That’s not to say that Democrats aren’t electing extreme candidates or in their own way, outsider candidates. We see people like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, the ultra left wing of her party, had no experience as an elected official before being elected to Congress, being successful. So she’s kind of a great Democratic example. But it very likely could be the composition of voters. It could be the types of candidates who are emerging. It could just be a fixture of the measures. And this is an open question that really needs to be explored more.
Matt Grossmann: So that makes me think we should talk about the measure a little bit more. So how did you measure the extremism of these electorates? And it came out, I know you said there are examples and there are distributions on each side, but it came out as a huge difference that we’re talking about the sort of average Republican district being as extreme as some of the most extreme Democratic districts. So how did we find that?
Rachel Porter: So we used publicly or not publicly available, but publicly produced voter files. So one of the problems scholars of elections and primary elections have is that we really don’t have a lot of information on these voters. So when political scientists do surveys, they almost always try to make these surveys nationally representative. Which is great, but nationally representative is not representative at the congressional district level. One congressional district could look a lot different than the average of the entire nation.
Now, when we’re talking about primary election constituencies, as I said before, we’re talking about a subset of a subset. We’re talking about a very specific group of people. So for instance, a very popular political science survey that lots of scholars use is the Congressional Election Survey or the Cooperative Congressional Election Survey. And on average, the number of primary voters for a given partisan primary election constituency, so for instance, if we were looking at the first district of Indiana’s Republican primary election constituency, how many respondents are we getting in that survey who belong to that group? Probably two to three. So we can’t learn anything from two to three people. That’s not a sample of individuals that we can gain any inferences from.
And that’s problematic because if we want to understand this very specific subset of voters, and we know that these voters are different across space, we need more information. So these voter files provide a lot of very useful things. And among them, they provide just quantity. So instead of having a survey of 25,000 people, we’re talking about 17 million data points. So then we’re able to say, “Okay, how many people do we have in this voter file?” Which is again, not a complete survey of all voters, but a subset of them. And we’re now able to look into the thousands, or at least the hundreds for a specific district’s specific partisan primary election constituency.
And again, there’s still going to be bias there because I’m only looking at a voter file that’s a subset of all voters. So then we do some sampling correction using a specific method called multilevel regression with synthetic post stratification, which allows us to up weight and down weight individuals in the sample who might be over or underrepresented to try to better capture the true ideological extremity of a specific primary constituency in a specific district.
So there’s a lot of statistics involved. There’s a lot of big data work involved. And the hardest part with this is that it’s really hard to validate these things because we don’t really have anything to compare them to. So there’s definitely more work to be done, but at least it gives us a starting point. Because if we’re just going to use district presidential vote share to tell us about the composition of a district, we know that’s not going to give us all the information we need to understand what’s happening in elections today.
Matt Grossmann: So you’ve mentioned that there’s fewer districts that are competitive in the general election, but we traditionally have this idea that voters can move to the left or the right in the primary, but then in the general election can try to appeal to the median voter. Now you’re not looking at the over time dynamics within a campaign, but you do have some evidence that candidates or voters are incorporating the potential threat in the general election. So talk about that. And is it the case that general election voters are also preferring extremists? Or is it the case that they’re sort of moderating for those districts where there’s true competition?
Rachel Porter: Yeah, it’s a good question. So there’s a couple of different dynamics going on here. So with general election voters, existing work has shown that they don’t tend to the extremist candidates as much, that they would prefer someone who’s a little bit more moderate. But we also know that general election voters vote in a predictably partisan way. So in 2018 and 2020, or I guess 2016 and 2020, we saw straight ticket voting at levels of 95 to 98%. So even when you’re presented with the extremist candidate, if they share your partisanship, that’s going to be who you’re voting for. So there’s no doubt that there could be some moderating influence, but this overriding partisan queue that voters use today makes us a little bit suspect about the general electorate’s ability to moderate these candidates.
Now, the question then remains when someone’s in the primary, are they looking to the general election and saying, “Hey, I’m going to have to moderate for the general election”? And when we think about presidential elections, we think about this idea of running to the middle. We think about someone like Mitt Romney trying to appeal to more party fringes in the primary and then trying to moderate himself in the general. So we take this kind of notion about moderation and we apply it to congressional elections. But something that’s really important to keep in mind are that congressional elections are not nearly as well covered in the media. They’re not nearly as well discussed amongst voters as presidential elections. So even if you were to launch this extremist campaign in the primary and try to moderate in the general, will voters actually know that you moderated? I don’t know. Because it’s the most competitive races that are the ones that are going to get more news coverage. And by competitive, I mean two-party competitive. So in those races, we already know that candidates are most certainly going to be looking to the general election, because even if they face a competitive primary, they’re looking forward to the competitive general as well.
In these safe races where the election’s over after the primary, there might not be a need for candidates to moderate because they know they have this predictably partisan group of voters in the general. And the other problem is that their election’s probably not going to get that much coverage. If they did go through this kind of moderating campaign, who’s going to know they did it? It’s unclear. So this kind of moderating influence of general election voters, it’s unclear if it actually happens in congressional elections. From some work that I’ve done looking at the way in which candidates talk in primaries versus how they talk in general elections shows, we’re not seeing a lot of change in rhetoric across time. So from the primary to the general, candidates really aren’t necessarily changing their tune too much. So what you’re getting in the primary is probably what you’re going to get in the general, is probably what you’re going to get in Congress.
Matt Grossmann: Your research focuses on the US House, but we’ve been seeing some of the same phenomenon in US Senate elections, and the Associated Press has found this year that in state legislative contests, we’re seeing a lot more incumbent defeats as well. So, to what extent is there kind of a wider rise of primaries phenomenon and what would be the kind of blocks on extrapolating from your research on the US House more broadly?
Rachel Porter: I think there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to the Senate, and more importantly, these state and local elections. Very little is known about the success rates of amateurs at the state and more over the local level. It’s important to note that the advantages of incumbency are going to be a lot stronger in the federal level than in the state level, just because of resources. But on the other hand, we also lack name recognition for our members of Congress. We’re going to lack even greater name recognition for state legislators.
I think it speaks to this broader rise in this pushback against political experience, this idea that people don’t necessarily want a career politician anymore, which has advantages and disadvantages. So when we think about a career politician, they’re going to be pretty good at their job. They’ve passed legislation before, they have learned how to work in the halls of a legislature, to wheel and deal, to get things for their constituents. If they don’t have that experience, are they going to be able to learn on the job quick enough? But, interestingly enough, we’re even seeing, and this comes up in the book, that experienced candidates are trying to pass themselves off as amateur candidates. So we’re seeing individuals who have served in the state legislature say, “Yes, I was in state government, but I was an outsider in state government. I was a maverick in state government. I pushed back against the career politicians. I’m not one of them,” even though they served in state government for 10 years. So it’s this show that’s being put on, and whether or not voters are buying it is definitely an open question.
Matt Grossmann: So you’ve also studied the rise of amateur candidates, which are not all extremists, but are, I assume associated, that we tend to be getting more candidates without elective experience. So tell us about that general trend and how these amateur candidates are succeeding.
Rachel Porter: So traditionally, when we think about the types of candidates that voters want elected to Congress and that parties want to support, we think about something called a quality candidate .and a quality candidate is not speaking to the overall good or bad nature of that candidate, but when we say quality, we’re talking about their ability to run a successful campaign. And a really great indicator for that is whether they’ve run a campaign and won before. So when we talk about quality candidates, we’re talking about these individuals who have previously held publicly elected office. So we’re talking about members of the state legislature. We’re talking about a previous governor. We’re talking about a city councilman or an alderman. And these quality candidates have traditionally dominated in American politics. These are the candidates who we see running and winning.
Now, let’s be clear these candidates, because they are electorally savvy, they’re also going to be emerging in the races that they think they have the best chance at winning. So we’re not going to see these quality candidates, unless it’s for good reason, emerging against an incumbent. These are the types of people who are going to wait and they’re going to bide their time and they’re going to show up in an open race. They’re going to run, if it’s against an incumbent, when that incumbent is very weak.
So when we think about these types of electorally experienced candidates, they’re going to be successful because they know how to run a campaign, but they’re also going to be successful because they know when to run and when they’re going to have the best shot at winning. And because of that, we’ve seen that when quality candidates emerge, they tend to win. So over time, we’re talking about across races, if a quality candidate emerged, or if multiple quality candidates emerged, if that race was a “quality race,” about 70 to 80% of the time, we would see the quality candidate winning. And if there were multiple, one of the quality candidates would win. Because remember in primaries, we can have two candidates, we could have 10 candidates.
This is changing. And what we’re seeing is that quality candidates are not having the dominance that they once did. And instead, we’re seeing amateur candidates, individuals who have never served in elected office seeing greater and greater success. So where it was once the case that quality candidates would win at rates of 60, 70, 80%, now quality candidates are winning a little over 50% of the races they emerge in. So, if it’s a quality candidate versus an amateur candidate, it’s a coin flip about who’s going to win.
And this is quite surprising. And the natural question is why is this happening? And we’ve looked at, and by we, I’m talking about myself and a co-author, Sarah Treul from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, we look at a couple of different reasons. We first asked this question that we’ve been talking a lot about, are these amateurs just systematically more extreme? And are voters preferring them because they are ideologically extreme? And what we find is that they’re not right. So, in districts where we would expect extreme candidates to emerge, yes, the amateur candidate is a little bit more ideologically extreme than an average candidate, but so is the quality candidate. So we’re not seeing that these amateurs have this extremity differential.
Another question is, well, maybe quality candidates aren’t good at emerging in the races that are going to lead to a victory anymore. Maybe they’ve kind of lost that special touch they had about thinking about where the best place to emerge would be. And we’re also finding that’s not the case. So in, I think it’s 95% of races that produce a new member of Congress, a quality candidate did emerge. So there could have been a winner who had elected experience, but only 50% of the time they are winning.
So, that led us to then look to some other potential explanations. And what we think is happening is that these amateurs are receiving more support from outside influences and outside activist interests than they did in the past, and that these interests are taking a liking to amateur candidates and are supporting their campaigns early on, and that could be leading to their success. Now it also could be voters. Maybe voters also like amateurs more than they did in the past. And there is some evidence of this. But whether it’s a mass or elite-driven phenomenon, there is no question that amateurs are seeing a lot more success today than they did in the past.
Matt Grossmann: So all the attention, or lots of the attention this year, has been on the candidates that were endorsed by Donald Trump or made themselves in the image of Donald Trump in primary elections. Many of those were amateurs, and some of those were ideological extremists. So how can your work inform that? And then are you seeing anything this year that’s different in this kind of phenomenon?
Rachel Porter: So, I can’t speak too much to 2022 yet. We’re still collecting the data. But as you said, yeah, Trumpist candidates do tend to be amateurs. They’re not always amateurs, but they are a lot of the time amateurs. And this makes a lot of sense with the Trump brand. Trump himself was an amateur candidate. He had never held elected office before he became President of the United States. So it makes sense that you would see a lot of acolytes in his image. So yeah, we see noteworthy successes, Harriet Hageman, again, this week, defeating Liz Cheney, an incumbent member of Congress, and Hageman never having held elected office herself, being a lawyer.
However, these Trumpist candidates success is not universal. Someone like Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina losing to Chuck Edwards who was a quality candidate, a state senator who had previously held elected office. So the Trumpist candidates success is not universal, but it’s also important to note that not every amateur is a Trumpist candidate. So when we think about these amateur candidates, it can be a natural inclination to think only about Republicans. And that for a while was true. We saw that amateur candidate success was chiefly seen in 2016 and some of 2018 among Republicans. But the trend has caught up for Democrats. In 2018 and especially in 2020, we saw, in some cases, Democratic amateurs outperforming Republican amateurs.
Now, it’s important to note the qualities of these amateurs are very different. So amateurs on the Republican side tend to skew more ideologically extreme. Amateurs on the Democratic side tend to not necessarily be more ideologically extreme, but have greater descriptive diversity than the average candidate. So amateur candidates tend to be women. They tend to be people of color. And they tend to come from more blue collar backgrounds. Which speaks to potentially the positives of electing amateurs. When we think about amateurs, it has a negative connotation. We think about that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t have elected experience. But they do bring other things to the table. They bring a different viewpoint. When we think about Congress, we think about it being overwhelmingly male and overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly educated. We think about amateurs, they have more blue collar backgrounds. They have greater descriptive diversity. They have a different viewpoint. When we think about amateurs, we’re also thinking about all those doctors who ran in 2018 and all the doctors who seem to be running in 2022. We like those types of amateurs. Those people have scientific experience, we’d like to see more of them in Congress. They oftentimes are amateurs as well.
Matt Grossmann: So you have also done work on women and minority candidates and some other social groups like veterans running in these primaries and finding that they have effects even if they don’t win. So talk about that a little bit and your perspective on the role of primary elections in representation.
Rachel Porter: So again, we spend a lot of time talking about how primary elections are really bad, but they sometimes can be good. So traditionally, when we think about the emergence patterns of women and people of color, and when we’re talking about emergence patterns, we’re talking about their likelihood to run for Congress, it’s quite low. And work by Jennifer Lawless and others have shown that this is because these minority candidates only want to run when they think that they can win, because if they don’t win, they don’t see themselves as having an impact on the dialogue of elections or potentially the legislative dialogue.
So in a project that I’m working on with Sarah Treul and Mara McDonald, we find that this isn’t the case, that simply by emerging, these women, these people of color can change the dialogue of their election. So we find that in Democratic primary elections for Congress, that when a female Democrat emerges in a Democratic primary, her male opponents will be statistically significantly more likely to talk about women’s issues. And we’re not talking about a small effect. We’re talking about a 25 percentage point increase. That’s a sizeable effect for the likelihood that these men will talk about issues that disproportionately affect women. When we see a Black candidate emerge in a Democratic primary election, we see a similar effect. White candidates are about 15 percentage points more likely to talk about issues that disproportionately affect people of color.
And what we show is that this kind of dialogue doesn’t end with the primary. If white candidates and male candidates talk about these issues in the primary, they’ll carry on these conversations to the general election. And work by Tracy [inaudible 00:36:59] and other scholars makes us hopeful that if a candidate talks about these issues in the general election, they’ll actually act on these issues in Congress. So the idea being that by seeing more descriptive diversity in primaries, we could actually be incentivizing a more descriptive dialogue in Congress as well.
Now, to kind of broaden our findings, we also look at veterans. We ask ourselves, well, if a military veteran emerges in a primary, might they also have a similar impact? And we find an effect among Republicans. So if you’re a Republican military veteran and you run in a Republican primary, you’re going to increase the probability that a non-veteran talks about issues in that primary by about, again, 15 percentage points. However, we don’t find an effect among Democrats. So if you’re a Democratic military veteran and you emerge, you’re not going to make your Democratic primary election opponents any more likely to talk about veterans’ issues.
Matt Grossmann: So you use campaign finance data sometimes to measure other variables and sometimes as of an indicator in itself of early support for these amateur candidates. So to what extent is our campaign finance system responsible for these dynamics? Or is it just reflecting other factors?
Rachel Porter: Yeah, it’s a really big question. So campaign finance has changed drastically since 2012 with the Citizens United decision. We’ve seen a outpouring of money into politics. And we’ve also seen the nature of money in politics change. So for a long time, for instance, political action committees would kind stay out of primary elections. We wouldn’t see a lot of PACs. We wouldn’t see a lot of super-PACs getting involved in primaries, but that’s changing. So what we’re seeing is that PACs and super-PACs are donating at increasing rates to primary election competitors and trying to throw their support behind these candidates early on. Which speaks to this phenomenon we were talking about earlier about the competitiveness of primaries. PACs are seeing that if the general election isn’t competitive, we have to get our candidate while we can in the primary. And some of our research is showing that these PACs are disproportionately supporting amateur candidates. They’re supporting people of color. They’re supporting women. So that’s a lot of positives.
Now on the other side of things, we don’t love the idea that these outside interests have a disproportionate effect on who runs and potentially wins in elections. So work by Daniel Thompson is showing that if you’re not raising money early enough in elections anymore, you’re going to drop out. And that’s going to decrease our already uncompetitive elections. So this money race is changing the dynamics of American politics such that the election in some cases is already over before it’s begun. There comes a point where if you’ve amassed enough resources that no one can beat you out, if you’ve dominated the campaign environment just through your amassing of monetary resources, no one can beat you and no one’s going to run against you, and then we’re not going to see this kind of democratic competition that we want in our elections.
So again, there’s a lot more work to be done in this area, but there’s definitely implications for the behavior of organized interests donating, the nature of the earliness that money becomes a significant factor in the outcome of elections, and the types of people who are donating that are definitely having implication on who’s running and winning in elections today.
Matt Grossmann: So I know you’re working on a book manuscript where you’re connecting some of these trends to what’s actually happening in congressional policy making. So to what extent can we say that what is occurring in campaigns in primary elections is actually making a difference to the kind of aggregate level success or failure in Congress?
Rachel Porter: Yeah. So when we were talking before about these amateurs and their positives and negatives, we were talking a lot about campaigns. But these amateurs’ effect on the political process doesn’t end in campaigns. Once they’re elected to Congress, the question is, are they successful legislators? If we’re electing more amateurs, if we’re electing more of these “outsiders,” what’s the effect on the legislative process? And what we’re finding so far in this book manuscript is some positives. As I said before, these amateurs tend to be of a more blue collar background. They tend to be more women, tend to be more people of color. And we need that descriptive diversity in Congress.
But we also find that they’re not as effective legislators. They tend to author less legislation. They tend to have less skilled or less trained congressional staff. And these congressional staff members have an outsized influence on the success of an office. They’re the people who are dealing with case work. They’re the people who are interfacing with constituents. So if these individuals don’t have a good understanding of how to work on Capitol Hill and how to get things done, that’s going to be a problem for the people who are represented by these amateurs.
But what we do find is that these amateurs are very, very good at social media. They’re very good at interfacing with constituents and talking about their work in Washington and saying, “Hey, here’s what I’m getting done,” even if that’s not actually what they’re doing. And that’s going to lead to their repeated reelection. And that’s hugely problematic when we think about how dysfunctional Congress is today, how little legislation is getting passed and the types of partisan bickering that we’re seeing. If amateurs are contributing to this kind of partisan confrontation and they’re not helping get things done because they don’t have experience as legislators, that’s hugely problematic for an already dysfunctional system.
Matt Grossmann: So I’ll push back a little bit on congressional dysfunction and just say we had divided government in the middle of a huge amount of vitriol in the Trump administration and we passed 10 major laws all with the support of majorities in both parties. Then this Congress, we’ve seen both successful bipartisan law making and successful partisan law making on the basis of a very slim Democratic majority. So is it possible that a lot of this is a side show or a public show by the amateurs, but it’s not necessarily that related to what actually gets done?
Rachel Porter: It very well could be. So in another project that I’m working on, I’m looking specifically at how elites are talking about the opioid epidemic in the United States. So I’m looking at the extent to which elites are talking about opioid issues and talking about them in a way that’s helpful for Americans. When we think about the opioid epidemic, something that’s been plaguing the United States since the 1990s, it reached incomprehensible levels in 2021. We saw that opioid overdoses reached rates that had not been seen before in the United States, rates that the CDC did not predict. So this is an issue that’s drastically affecting Americans.
And what I show is that elites are putting on a real show when it comes to the opioid epidemic. If you are a member of Congress representing a constituency that has opioid deaths, but not too many opioid deaths, you’re using this major issue to talk about partisan fights. If you’re a Democrat, you’re talking about criminal justice reform. Which is very important, I’m not saying it’s not important, but it’s not really germane to the opioid epidemic. And if you’re a Republican, you’re talking about immigration and you’re talking about building the wall and you’re talking about the border. Which again, is important, but not germane to the opioid issue. But then in the halls of Congress, we see these same individuals authoring legislation that’s substantively sound and actually germane to the opioid epidemic.
So even if we are seeing less dysfunction in Congress than what these kind of partisan fights make it out to be, it’s a huge problem if that’s not what the public is actually seeing. Because public trust in institutions has continued to decline. And if we’re seeing these partisan side shows play out in the public and we’re not seeing members of Congress actually inform constituents about what’s happening, and something as extreme as educating them on the dangers of opioids, we’re doing them a disservice. Existing work in the public health literature has shown that members of Congress are among the most cited “experts” about the opioid epidemic. That’s incredibly troubling if they’re turning this major public health issue into a partisan side show. So even if we are seeing less actual dysfunction, if the public isn’t seeing Congress behaving the way it should and actually engaging in this bipartisanship, we’re going to continue to see an erosion of trust in institutions and we’re going to see an erosion in constituents’ understanding of what Congress is actually doing and the issues that are affecting them every day.
Matt Grossmann: So what’s next for you? Anything you’ll be looking for in 2022, about whether any of this is changing, and anything we didn’t get to that you want to include?
Rachel Porter: Yeah. So the book, we’re hoping to get done soon, which we’re very excited about. This work on opioids is ongoing. I’m hoping to look at what happened in 2022 with the opioid epidemic. So the work I was speaking to just now focused a lot on 2018 and 2020, but we know in 2020, there was a bigger public health crisis in COVID. So in 2022, we saw a renewed interest in Congress in the opioid epidemic. So exploring that a little bit more. And then really diving into this question of money in politics that we spent a little bit of time talking about. So when we think about how we conceptualize money in politics, there’s a lot of research, but there’s a lot of research doing a lot of different things. So how might our measurement strategies need to change with the evolving way that money and politics engage together? How might we need to re-conceptualize the role that money plays, and how might we need to re-engineer our measures of the influence of money to better account for the ways in which activist groups, political action committees, and outside interests are now getting involved with the political process in a way that they didn’t necessarily do before, at least at the earliness that they are doing today.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, I recommend checking out these episodes: Congressional Primaries, How the Parties Fight Insurgents; Do the Parties Prefer White Male Candidates?; Do Early Primary States Still Pick Presidents?; How Donor Opinion Distorts American Democracy; and Are the Democratic or Republican Parties Becoming More Similar or Different? Please check out Rachel Porter’s work and then listen in next time.