Partisan Intensity in Congress: Evidence from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Nomination

Published date01 June 2021
Date01 June 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(2) 450 –463
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920911464
Congress is rife with partisanship. Every day, Democrats
and Republicans bicker on a range of issues. Sometimes
these fights involve policy disagreements. Often, they do
not. For example, July 12, 2018, a normal day in the U.S.
Senate, included nearly a dozen partisan disputes.
Senators sparred over Ryan Bounds’ district court and
Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nominations.
Democrats lambasted President Trump for his trade and
immigration policies. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
claimed that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investi-
gation into the Trump campaign and Russian election
interference was tainted and corrupt. Other Senators
fought over Trump’s NATO (North Atlantic Treaty
Organization) policies, the recent Republican tax bill’s
economic effects, and government scientists testifying
about climate change.1
While partisan disputes are omnipresent on Capitol
Hill, members’ participation in these fights varies. Some
legislators participate on multiple topics at once. Others
focus on a single battle and some stay out of the partisan
fray altogether. What explains this variation? Why do some
members of Congress eagerly join partisan fights while
others do not? Most research on partisanship examines
lawmakers’ partisan preferences, their willingness to take a
stance, by examining voting and cosponsorship patterns.
Although important, this approach misses much congres-
sional bickering. Many disputes, even high-profile ones,
never produce a bill members can cosponsor or a roll call
vote. Additionally, studying votes and cosponsorships tells
us little about who was most involved in a given fight.
Rather, we need to study legislators’ partisan intensity, the
time and effort they devote to these battles.
In this paper, I consider why lawmakers choose to
bicker with the other party. I argue partisan fighting is
driven by the same factors that explain other types of leg-
islative participation. Constituent demand affects a legis-
lator’s baseline willingness to join a dispute. Members
holding safe seats eagerly fight to appeal to the partisan
voters who dominate their districts. In contrast, legislators
in competitive seats reduce this behavior to avoid alienat-
ing constituents beyond their party base. Additionally,
911464PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920911464Political Research QuarterlyGelman
1University of Nevada, Reno, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jeremy Gelman, University of Nevada, Reno, 1664 N. Virginia St., MS
0302, Reno, NV 89557, USA.
Partisan Intensity in Congress: Evidence
from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme
Court Nomination
Jeremy Gelman1
Partisan disputes are ubiquitous in Congress. Yet, participation in this bickering varies among legislators. Some eagerly
join these fights while others abstain. What explains this variation? Previous research examines this question by studying
members’ partisan preferences expressed through votes or bill cosponsorships. However, preference-based studies
miss much of the daily congressional bickering and cannot identify which legislators were most involved in the fighting.
This paper considers lawmakers’ partisan intensity, the time and effort they devote to partisanship. I argue the same
factors that drive other forms of legislative participation—constituent demand, committee service, and a member’s
personal characteristics—also predict who joins a partisan dispute. Using Senators’ daily Twitter communications
during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, I show legislators’ partisan intensity systematically varied
based on these factors. In particular, I find that sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh altered Senators’ partisan
behavior in a predictable manner. This study helps explain why legislators choose to create the partisan acrimony that
is omnipresent on Capitol Hill and contributes to our understanding of partisanship, messaging politics, and how social
identity affects legislative participation.
Congress, partisanship, Kavanaugh, Supreme Court, senate, partisan intensity

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