Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does the Party Matter? Endorsements in Congressional Primaries

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does the Party Matter? Endorsements in Congressional Primaries

Article excerpt


Research suggests that endorsements should affect outcomes in low-information elections such as primaries, but that hypothesis has not yet been tested empirically. Based on a survey of 2002 congressional campaigns, this article describes the universe of individuals and groups that offer endorsements to primary candidates and analyzes their effects on primary election results. It finds that a primary candidate's share of the partisan endorsements issued in the race significantly affects the candidate's vote share, even controlling for campaign funds and candidate quality. Implications for theories of candidate emergence and success are discussed.


primary election, political party, congressional election, endorsement, party network, candidate emergence

This article investigates whether endorsements from groups and prominent individuals affect the outcomes of congressional primary elections. Although some scholarship (Cohen et al. 2008) has shown that endorsements do appear to help presidential candidates win their nominations, we know very little about whether endorsements have the same types of effects in races for lower level offices. This is an important omission because it is in races such as congressional primaries, to which the press pays little attention (Fowler and Goldstein 2006) and in which voters have less information about the candidates, that we might expect elite cues such as endorsements to have the biggest impact (Lupia 1994). Moreover, little attention has been paid to primaries as explicitly partisan contests, even though there are strong reasons to suspect that more partisan endorsements might have a bigger effect on primary electorates than nonpartisan endorsements.

Relying on a survey of 2002 primary campaigns, this study describes the prominent role that group and individual endorsements play in congressional primaries and estimates their impact on primary outcomes. It finds that partisan endorsements have a strong effect on primary outcomes, even controlling for campaign spending and candidate quality. If it is generally the case that partisan endorsements help candidates win primaries, that has important implications for our understanding of the roles that candidates and parties play in primary elections. For example, though partisan elites may not be able to choose candidates to run or prevent them from running, these results imply that candidates have explicit incentives to make allies within the party coalition to advance up the political career ladder. In this way, the preferences of partisan elites and the relationships between candidates and other partisan elites can have effects on primary election outcomes even while candidates remain in the strategic driver's seat. This finding is important because it helps to reconcile two seemingly contradictory models of primary elections: one in which outcomes are driven by the activities of party leaders and the other in which outcomes are driven solely by candidate entry decisions and personal campaigns.

Understanding Primary Elections

Current scholarship presents two very different models of how to understand primary elections. The first argues that primary outcomes depend mostly on candidates' decisions, personal qualities, and campaign spending, while the second argues that primaries are heavily manipulated by the activities of partisan elites. These perspectives offer competing hypotheses about whether and how endorsements might be expected to affect primary outcomes.

A great deal of what we know about patterns of competition in congressional primaries has been learned incidentally, as political scientists have sought to understand why congressional elections are so rarely competitive. Because competitive elections are essential to holding officeholders accountable to the public and ensuring that the public's wishes are adequately represented in government, political scientists have, for more than thirty years, explored and refined models of incumbent and challenger behavior. …

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