Expanding Constituency Support Through Shared Local Roots in U.S. House Primaries

Published date01 March 2021
Date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(2) 233 –244
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20959606
Recent academic studies as well as popular media accounts
of congressional elections have focused largely on how
closely the reelection chances of a member of Congress
(MC) are tied to the fortunes of their party at both the district
and national levels. There is little doubt that partisanship of
both MC and voter plays a crucial role in shaping congres-
sional elections and representation (Jacobson, 2015).
However, there remains significant variation in MCs’ rela-
tionships with their constituents that cannot be explained
solely by partisanship. This variation has extensive impacts
on electoral outcomes, particularly in primary elections,
when party labels are unavailable as a cue to co-partisan vot-
ers. This paper leverages the primary election condition to
identify the power of an attribute of incumbent MCs other
than partisanship: the extent of their local biographical roots
in their district.
Previous scholarship tells us that voters put a premium on
incumbent-specific attributes such as race, religion, geogra-
phy, and gender when deciding whether to reelect their repre-
sentative (Childs & Cowley, 2011; Fenno, 2003; Gay, 2001;
Green & Guth, 1991; Plutzer & Zipp, 1996). Nonpartisan and
nonideological connections establish stronger relationships
between constituents and MCs, and thereby increase an MC’s
chances of renomination and reelection. An MC’s local, place-
based roots in the district is one such important but understud-
ied connection between MCs and constituents. These roots
provide both practical and symbolic representational benefits
that help MCs connect with their constituents through place-
based identity, values, and experiences unique to the district,
as well as offering social, political, and financial benefits
that improve MCs’ electoral standing. Even in an era of
nationalized political upheaval characterized by partisan and
ideological polarization, local roots capture a shared sense of
place-based identity that positively conditions how MCs relate
to their constituents, and as a result improves their electoral
There is variation in the extent to which MCs possess this
powerful shared local identity with their constituents. I capture
these local roots using an original seven-point scale of verified
biographical information that pinpoints MCs’ authentic, lived
experience within the geographic boundaries of their districts
at different points in their pre-Congress lives. I use these
indicators for incumbent House members from 2002 to 2018
to address the multiple ways in which shared local roots
strengthen their foundational relationship with their constitu-
ents—and by extension, their reelection chances—at the first
crucial stage of the reelection process: the party primary.
959606APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20959606American Politics ResearchHunt
1Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA
Corresponding Author:
Charles Hunt, Boise State University, 1910 W University Dr, Boise, ID
83725-0001, USA.
Email: charleshunt@boisestate.edu
Expanding Constituency Support
Through Shared Local Roots in
U.S. House Primaries
Charles Hunt1
This paper addresses the enduring connection of localism and place-based roots shared between many elected leaders and
their constituents, which previous work has either ignored or improperly specified. I argue that representatives of the U.S.
House with these roots—meaning authentic, lived experience in their districts prior to their officeholding—sustain more
supportive constituencies in primary election stage. Using an original 7-point index of local biographical characteristics of
incumbents seeking renomination from 2002 to 2018, I find that deeply-rooted incumbents are less than half as likely to receive
a primary challenge, and on average perform more than 5 percentage points better in their primary elections when they are
challenged. These gains take place even after taking district partisanship, national political conditions, incumbent ideology, and
other primary factors into account, and should induce scholars to reconsider the importance of local representation even
amidst a nationalizing political culture.
congress, congressional elections, primary elections, political geography, congressional candidates, representation

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