Episode 9: Congressional Primaries: How the Parties Fight Insurgents
The year 2016 brought a lot of change in presidential primaries, but mostly continuity in House and Senate primaries. How will the candidates gain party support and win votes in this year’s crowded primary season? Hans Hassell says party elites and donors continue to decide the vast majority of primaries by clearing the field and providing support. Robert Boatright says the story of primaries as ideological battles contributing to polarization is way oversold. Neither sees 2018 breaking the historical mold.
The Niskanen Center’s Political Research Digest features up-and-coming researchers delivering fresh insights on the big trends driving American politics today. Get beyond punditry to data-driven understanding of today’s Washington with host and political scientist Matt Grossmann. Each 15-minute episode covers two new cutting-edge studies and interviews two researchers.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, the dynamics of Congressional primaries, and how parties fight back against insurgents. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
2016 brought a lot of change in presidential primaries, but mostly continuity in the House and Senate. We’re now entering a crowded midterm primary season and a potential Democratic wave, so it’s a good time to learn how primary candidates gain party support, and how they win votes.
A new book, The Party’s Primary: Control of Congressional Nominations, published by Cambridge University Press, argues that party organizations and donor networks continue to decide the vast majority of primaries by clearing the field and providing support. I talked to author Hans Hassell, of Cornell College, about whether insurgents are likely to fare better this year.
Pundits highlight ideological battles in each party, and blame primaries for polarization. But Robert Boatright of Clark University says that story is vastly oversold. I also talked to him about his Rutledge text, Congressional Primary Elections, and recent research on who votes, who runs, and who wins in primaries.
Political scientists traditionally find that, without partisan labels to use as cues, voters rely more on candidate characteristics. But Hans Hassell says parties still hold a lot of the cards.
Hassell: Parties have influence in primary elections, that they’re able to clear the field for a preferred candidate, and then help that particular candidate succeed in a primary election.
Grossmann: Parties win quite often in primaries for both chambers.
Hassell: In Senate primary elections, the party’s preferred candidate wins about 80 percent of the time. And it’s about two thirds of the time in a House primary. They’re about 40 to 50 percent less likely to drop out of a race if they have support from the party.
Grossmann: Parties are even more important in races without an incumbent.
Hassell: Primaries without incumbents, you actually see a stronger effect of party influence. And that’s primarily because, you know, the candidates that are challenging party incumbents are these kind of cathartic candidacies that aren’t really interested in winning, they’re more interested in participating in the process in somehow. So what you actually see, is you see a stronger effect in open primaries without an incumbent, that the party’s more persuasive at getting the candidates that doesn’t want out of the race.
Grossmann: Hassell says the evidence for a strong party role better matches how professionals think about primaries.
Hassell: When I went to graduate school, I had just come of working for a party organization in Minnesota. I got to graduate school, and my experience of the conventional wisdom among political practitioners was very different from the conventional wisdom that I’d seen in scholarship.
Hassell: Among scholars, the predominant view is that elections are candidate-centered, that it’s what matters in these sorts of elections are the candidate’s attributes, their past experience, their ambition, and what matters … That’s the sort of things that matter in helping a candidate win the primary. And the party was largely viewed as an entity that sat on the sidelines and waited for the nominee, or wait for the primary voters to decide who they wanted to support, and then it would get into the general election, you know, they try to coordinate and help a candidate be successful by marshaling resources.
This is very different from my experience working for a party organization. And I can remember superiors telling me that, “you know, so and so called, you don’t have to get back to him right away. You know, delay, wait awhile, it’s not that important.” Whereas, there are other individuals that we had to respond to their calls and their inquiries quickly. And the party was very active in trying to push out people that they didn’t want in the race, who they thought might make them vulnerable if that particular campaign were to win the primary.
Grossmann: In The Party’s Primary, he measures party-preferred candidates through shared donors, but it’s just an indicator of broader support.
Hassell: In the book, I use a measure of shared donors with the party organization, to kind of measure this party support. I don’t think that the only mechanism by which parties have support is through money, and so I think that this measure is probably, is a proxy for a lot of other sorts of things that the party is able to do.
Hassell: They are able to funnel good campaign staff to candidates. In one case, a former National party staffer told me a story about how one particular candidate came to the national party looking for a press secretary. And party leaders really didn’t want this candidate to win, because they were afraid if that candidate won, they would be vulnerable in general election. And so they purposely sent that candidate the worst possible PR guy that they knew that was operating in that particular state, and said “This guy should be your press secretary.” Trying to put a drag on that campaign.
Hassell: So I don’t think it’s entirely money. Money is the easiest way, the shared donors is the easiest way to, I think, to operationalize.
Grossmann: He says parties influence both prospective candidates and voters.
Hassell: I do see a significant effect, both on the influence that parties have at getting a candidate out of a race. Like I said, I think, roughly, a candidate without party support is roughly 50 percentage points more likely to drop out of the race. But it’s a similar, once you get those candidates that are competing in a primary, party support increases the likelihood of winning by about 50% as well.
Hassell: So, I mean, it’s hard to say exactly what percentage is influenced directly on the candidate, and what percentage is sort of the resources that they’re able to give these candidates that then help the candidate run a better campaign.
Grossmann: It’s true that the party didn’t decide the 2016 Republican presidential primary, but there are a lot of differences in congressional races.
Hassell: Because the President is an entirely different, entirely different game. With the House and Senate, you have a very clear, hierarchical structure. You’ve got the NRCC and the NRSC and the, you know, the DSCC and the D triple C on the other side, and they all have very clear congressional leadership at the head of those organizations, and they have a very clear hierarchical position of power to try to influence other individuals who try to get into line.
Hassell: You don’t have that on the presidential side. So I think there’s some, there’s less persuasion, the bargaining power that individuals might have to get a presidential candidate out of the race is much more difficult.
Grossmann: Hassell says party leaders often have their own preferred candidates, but not necessarily due to electability.
Hassell: The parties prefer moderate candidates, but they prefer moderate candidates largely in races where the preference for moderate candidates wouldn’t make a difference on the outcome. So they’re preferring moderate candidates in races that are completely safe, or completely unwinnable. So it appears to be more of a sincere preference for moderate candidates.
And that leaves us with another question, too. If we empower parties, the battle for control of the party apparatus then becomes all the more important. And you actually do see a shift rightward after the 2010 election cycle, and the Republican Party’s preference. And so they started to prefer more conservative candidates in general, after, just after the cycle where a whole bunch of Tea Party candidates are elected into office and started to have perhaps a little bit more influence on party leadership in some way.
Grossmann: But Robert Boatright says the ideological view of primary competition does not comport with most evidence.
Boatright: I’m kind of skeptical that all of the claims that have been made about the effect of primaries on the behavior of members of Congress, on general election outcomes and so on, are in fact accurate. I think there’s a conventional wisdom that we’ve acquired over the past few years that there is a primary problem, particularly in the Republican Party, and that extremists are putting mainstream incumbents on their heels, as it were.
I think it’s understandable that that perception exists, but it’s based on a small number of anecdotes, and it’s not in fact the reality of what tends to happen in primaries. Primary elections tend to be relatively low turnout affairs, and for all the talk of extreme conservatives for the most part, and extreme liberals in a few cases, having an advantage in primaries, I think overall the data suggests that that’s not in fact true, that that is largely a media creation.
Grossmann: He says ideological insurgencies usually have to pick their battles, rather than wage many-front wars.
Boatright: The potential for organizations, especially the Club for Growth in particular, move on to some extent in the Democratic Party, to use primaries for their own ends, that is, to make themselves look like they’re really players in elections. That only works if they strategically pick a very small number of races, one or two races, that they’re going to focus all of their attention on. So the average Congressional incumbent is not likely to be one of those one or two people. Of course, if they are, then they face a very different kind of campaign.
Grossmann: But primaries can still affect incumbents if an elite narrative develops that they’re under attack.
Boatright: Story itself can have effect. If you look at Jeff Blake’s decision not to seek re-election, if you look at the concerns that other Republicans have had about the trouble they might face in the primary. Again, that’s not necessarily based on hard evidence. That’s based on good stories that have been told and promoted by ideological groups over the past few years, and those stories can persist, and those stories can influence candidate’s behavior, even if they’re not, in fact, true.
Grossmann: Boatright says due to low turnout, primaries are the choices of consistent party voters.
Boatright: Well, most of the people who turn out to vote in primaries are people who are habitual party voters. They’re not necessarily ideologically that different from the party. Again, I think there’s a widespread perception that primary voters are more extreme than party regulars, but by and large, they’re not. By and large … If you look, for instance, at a year like 2010, where there’s this huge Republican wave, by and large, the people who voted in Republican primaries were just the kind of folks who are habitual party voters.
Grossmann: He saw no sign in 2016 of insurgent voters associated with Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders affecting Congressional primaries.
Boatright: Looking at 2016, I tried very hard in a couple things I wrote, to figure out whether there was any sort of Trump boost to a particular type of Republican candidate, and I really didn’t see any. I think in 2016, the presence of Donald Trump, and perhaps to a lesser extent, of Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries had the effect of bringing in a few voters who were different than traditional Republicans, but I didn’t see any evidence that that had any effect on Congressional races. In fact, it seemed to have been, in 2016, a little bit the reverse. That is, that the Presidential race kind of crowded out the efforts of a lot of other candidates on the ballot to establish a base of their own.
Boatright: So at the moment, there’s not really any evidence that Donald Trump actually helps the Republican Party.
Grossmann: The Republican Party has actually been on a roll in defeating Congressional insurgents lately, after a couple of bad cycles.
Boatright: Beginning in about 2014, the Republican Establishment effectively started to dampen the Tea Party wave in primaries. In 2014 for the Republicans, for instance, if you look at the Senate, there were five competitive Republican incumbent Senate primaries, and the establishment effectively beat back all of these candidates.
Grossmann: Democrats have historically done better at limiting their fields, so it will be interesting to see how they deal with the crowds in 2018.
Boatright: Well, the Democratic Party has perhaps done a better job than Republicans, over the past few years, of limiting competition in primaries, which is historically unusual, if you think about it. I mean, the Democrats perhaps have often been seen as the more fractious party, right, all these different competing interest groups, and so on. But over the past decade or so, Democrats have seen less competition and challenge in primaries than is the norm.
Boatright: Democrats, I think, have cared a little bit more about electability, so if you look at contentious Democratic challenger primaries over the past few years, by and large, all of the money went to one candidate, and so competition was effectively reduced before the voters actually had their chance to register their preferences.
Boatright: Again, I don’t know that that’s a great template for 2018, simply because there is such a large number of declared Democrats, but I think the orthodoxy in the Democratic Party has always been to try to do what they can to limit primary competition, and to pool resources behind one particularly strong candidate. So this year will really be a test of whether the Democrats are able to continue to do that.
Grossmann: So far, Boatright does not see any party-defining races this year.
Boatright: It’s too early to say on the Democratic side. Again, there’s an unprecedented number of declared Democratic candidates, especially in some kind of surprising places. So there will be somewhat more competition among Democrats. Again, that’s to be expected, given Democratic anticipation of gains in the general election, but to my knowledge, there are not any individual Democratic House or Senate races that have really shown up on the radar as being that exciting.
Boatright: In the states that Democrats, particularly in the Senate, in states where Democrats might have something to gain, you’ll note that there are not any Democratic incumbents, except perhaps for California, which is a safe Democratic place no matter what.
Boatright: There’s not really any competition in Democratic primaries. If you look, for instance, at Arizona, the Democratic candidate there doesn’t really have any serious competition. If you look at Nevada, the other potential Democratic pickup, again, the primary won’t be interesting.
Grossmann: Hassell says more candidates do not necessarily disrupt the party’s key role.
Hassell: I think that the biggest thing that happens is you get, you know, more good candidates willing to run. I’m not sure that it … In some cases, it becomes, because you have more candidates in the race, perhaps that may be a detriment, you end up with more conflict. But I haven’t seen any signs that there’s an anti-Democratic party sentiment in the same way there was for Republicans in 2010, where even the Tea Party would occasionally challenge a party-preferred candidate, because they weren’t conservative enough or they weren’t ideological enough, they were too establishment. And you don’t get the same sense that that’s happening among Democrats.
Grossmann: Still, Boatright’s advice to candidates is that they need an independent base.
Boatright: For Democratic candidates seeking to win primaries in 2018, I think moreso than Republicans, they’re really on their own. Their individual fundraising ability, their ability to sink money in their District, their ability to generate some sort of buzz among liberal donors, may ultimately determine their success in primaries.
Grossmann: Hassell told me candidate messaging is a hole in the current research.
Hassell: I think there are good questions about kind of the formation of messaging in primary campaigns. There’s been a lot of work on kind of the choice of issues or the conversations that candidates have in the general elections, or they often tend to speak past each other. I think it would be interesting to look better at the messaging and the conversations that parties have at that level, at the primary election level.
Grossmann: According to Boatright, we’re likely stuck with primaries, and the world is even copying our model.
Boatright: Primaries are beginning to spread to other countries. We’re seeing things that look a little bit like primaries being used a lot more in Europe today, for instance, and I think what the American experience suggests is that once you let the genie out of the bottle, right, once you start telling people that primaries are more democratic, people will believe this. And once party elites sort of hand control over to the voters, there’s not really any going back. You’re stuck with primaries, even if primaries wind up not living up to the objectives you had, or not yielding long term excitement, you’re kind of stuck with them.
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center, and I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Hans Hassell and Robert Boatright for joining me.
Join us next time to find out who is protesting Donald Trump, and whether the resistance is changing public views.