Party Unity, Ideology, and Polarization in Primary Elections for the House of Representatives: 1956–2012

Published date01 November 2015
Date01 November 2015
AuthorNicholas Pyeatt
Penn State-Altoona
Party Unity, Ideology, and
Polarization in Primary Elections
for the House of Representatives:
Increasing party polarization in Congress is a vexing phenomenon for political
scientists, as it offers a theoretical conundrum. Members of Congress have become
increasingly ideologically divided by party in recent years, which seems counterintuitive
as the public electorally punishes representatives for excessive partisanship and ideologi-
cal behavior. One explanation for this result is that members receive benefits for such
behavior during primaries. This article examines the effect of ideological and partisan
behavior on primary challenges and primary vote totals for incumbent House members.
The results show that incumbents receive benefits in the primary from greater levels of
partisanship but not greater levels of ideological extremity. This finding is substantively
important as it provides further insight into the motivation of congressional incumbents
and offers a partial explanation for the rise in congressional polarization.
What I have had to consider is how productive an additional term would be. Unfortu-
nately, I do not realistically expect the partisanship of recent years in the Senate to
change over the shortterm.
—Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)
On February 28, 2012, Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), one of the
most moderate members of the Senate, announced that she would not
seek reelection at the end of her term (“Snowe, Kerrey Complicate GOP
Goals,” 2012). This led to an active discussion about the implications for
the Republican goal of retaking the Senate, but perhaps the more interest-
ing issue is what this retirement ref‌lects about the status of moderate
politicians in Congress. Snowe, while elected from a state that has trended
Democratic at the national level in recent years, was in no signif‌icant elec-
toral danger; most pundits considered her reelection in 2012 to be almost
DOI: 10.1111 /lsq.12092
C2015 The Comparative Legislative Research Center of The University of Iowa
perfunctory (e.g., Miller 2012). Snowe’s retirement ref‌lects that the insti-
tution of Congress has become less hospitable to moderates and that most
of the remaining moderates are the vestiges of an earlier era.
The increasing ideological gap between Republicans and Demo-
crats in Congress, known as polarization, is precisely the reason that
Snowe used to explain her retirement from the Senate. Polarization has
been heavily studied by academics, who have sought to understand the
sources of this phenomenon (for an extensive literature review on the
subject, see Fiorina, Adams, and Pope 2010; Theriault 2008). Regardless
of the exact causes, using a variety of measures, it is clear that parties in
Congress have become further apart ideologically over the past several
decades (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006; Poole and Rosenthal
1991). This phenomenon seems curious as the public has been found to
electorally reward members of Congress for more moderate behavior
(Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan 2002; Erikson 1971).
Given that the public electorally punishes members of Congress as
they become more ideologically extreme, and because they are highly
focused on reelection (e.g., Arnold 1990; Mayhew 1974), what explains
the movement of Congress to the extremes? One explanation is that pri-
mary elections create incentives to be more extreme in order to appeal to
party activists (Aldrich 1995; Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Stewart 2001;
Burden 2001, 2004), especially with the increase in safe seats since the
1970s (Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning 2006). Additionally, pri-
mary elections may reward extremity in terms of presenting incumbents
with fewer in-party challengers and easier nomination contests (Brady,
Han, and Pope 2007).
The view that ideological extremity is a penalty for incumbents in
general elections has recently been challenged. Findings from Carson
et al. (2010) show that the strength of the incumbent’s partisanship has a
greater impact on vote share than the incumbent’s ideological position.
Their conclusions point to the electorate’s ability to differentiate between
the ideological and partisan behavior of incumbents. Though this work
focused on general elections, it brings into question whether ideological
extremity in primaries is actually as advantageous as previously
observed. As voters in primary elections are principally partisan voters
(i.e., their motivation is principally partisan in nature), it seems reason-
able that they should reward partisan behavior but not necessarily
ideological behavior. For these voters who have self-selected to partici-
pate in a party-nominating contest, incumbent partisanship should be the
dominant factor in their vote.
In the analysis to follow, looking at data over the majority of the
postwar period (1956–2012), greater levels of partisan voting by
652 Nicholas Pyeatt

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