The Importance of Race and Ethnicity in Congressional Primary Elections

By Branton, Regina P. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2009 | Go to article overview

The Importance of Race and Ethnicity in Congressional Primary Elections


Branton, Regina P., Political Research Quarterly


Research regarding the electoral importance of race and ethnicity in congressional elections is limited by the overwhelming focus on general-election outcomes. This article seeks to extend this research by examining minority candidate emergence and electoral competition in U.S. House primary elections, using a new data set on all U.S. House contests between 1994 and 2004 that includes demographic information on all the candidates in the primary elections. The results indicate that district-level race and ethnicity are associated with minority candidate emergence; furthermore, the presence of minority candidates influences electoral competitiveness in primary elections.

Keywords: African American candidates; Latino candidates; primary elections; primary competition

(ProQuest: ... denotes formula omitted.)

In recent decades, political scientists have become increasingly interested in the issue of minority representation in the U.S. Congress (e.g., Canon 1999; Lublin 1997; Swain 1995). A large portion of this research focuses on the relationship between districtlevel characteristics, such as the size of the African American population, and electoral outcomes in U.S. House general elections. The findings of this literature indicate that the likelihood of minority descriptive representation increases as the district-level minority population increases.

Arguably, the existing research provides a narrow examination of the electoral importance of race and ethnicity. The singular focus on general-election outcomes overlooks the broader electoral implications of race and ethnicity in U.S. House elections. The overwhelming focus on minority candidates in general elections fails to consider the potential importance of race and ethnicity in primary elections. Additionally, the singular concentration on general elections does not offer insight regarding where minority candidates emerge and how the presence of minority candidates influences the competitiveness of primary elections.

This article seeks to address these issues by offering a more comprehensive view of the importance of race and ethnicity in congressional elections. Specifically, this article examines minority candidate emergence and whether the presence of minority candidates is associated with competitiveness of primary elections. I use a data set on all U.S. House contests between 1994 and 2004, which includes information on all primary-election candidates - winners and losers. I estimate models of minority candidate emergence and electoral competition in congressional primary elections as a function of candidate-level and district-level race and ethnicity. The results indicate that as the district-level African American population increases, the number of African American candidates in the primary election increases; likewise, as the Latino population increases, the number of Latino candidates increases. Furthermore, the presence of African American and Latino candidates leads to more competitive Democratic primaries.

The Importance of Race and Ethnicity in Congressional Elections

Historically, minority groups have experienced limited descriptive representation in legislative bodies such as the U.S. House. This is not only because of their diminutive size compared to the Anglo population but also because of voting rights practices. During the 1990s redistricting period, majority-minority districts were introduced explicitly to facilitate the election of minority representatives to the U.S. House. This heightened scholarly interest in the subject of descriptive and substantive representation for racial and ethnic minority groups (Lublin 1997; Swain 1995). This research illustrates that as the African American or Latino population increases, the probability of African American or Latino descriptive representation likewise increases (Barrete, Segura, and Woods 2004; Canon 1999; Lublin 1997; Guilder 1994).

Although this research is overwhelmingly concerned with the electoral implications of majority-minority redistricting, it is arguably limited in scope with regard to the information it provides on the broader importance of race and ethnicity in congressional elections.

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The Importance of Race and Ethnicity in Congressional Primary Elections
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