The Papers That Could Change Politics in the Coming Years

April 23, 2013 1085

A review of new material presented at the Midwest Political Science Association’s annual conference in Chicago.


I’ve just returned from the Midwest Political Science Association’s annual conference in Chicago. This conference is always a favorite of mine. It’s quite big, but it tends to draw a large proportion of people who study American politics and methods—my kind of folks. It also draws a healthy combination of graduate students using cutting-edge techniques and established scholars with practical experience, and allows opportunities for mentorship and the sharing of ideas.

I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight just a handful of papers I saw that struck me as interesting and topical, mainly to give readers an idea of what political scientists (or at least the kind that tend to show up at MPSA) are currently up to. These pretty much overlap with my issue areas (party polarization, state and local politics, etc.) and hardly represent the full range of papers on display. But, hey, they caught my eye.

Just to be clear: these are conference papers. That means they’re often first drafts of things that will end up as dissertations, books, chapters, or journal articles. The quality of scholarship for such papers is usually quite high, but they have not undergone any sort of peer review and have probably only received modest feedback so far. (Really, that’s why we present them at conferences.) Chances are, they will undergo significant changes before they end up in print, which may take years, or never even happen. But this is where the ideas begin.

Political reformers concerned about party polarization and gridlock tend to advocate open primaries; let more moderate voters participate in the primaries, and you’ll get more moderate officeholders, right? Well, actually, no—primary types seems to have almost no impact on the voting behavior of elected officials. Norrander et al.’s paper helps explain why. The argument is that when you create open primaries, you tell moderate voters that they don’t need to be registered members of a party in order to participate in the primary election. So the only people that remain as registered partisans are the hard-core ideologues. Conversely, in a closed primary state, moderates who want to vote in a primary have to join a party, making the party as a whole more moderate. The paper suggests that closed primaries might actually help make parties, and their officeholders, more moderate.

Some recent research has demonstrated that while our congressional parties have been polarizing in recent years, Republicans are moving rightward more quickly than Democrats are moving leftward. What kind of effect does this have on people thinking of running for Congress? Using a survey of state legislators and their roll call voting records estimates of their ideological positions derived from campaign donation patterns, Thomsen finds that moderate Republican state legislators increasingly believe that they could not survive a Republican congressional primary and thus decide not to run for Congress. Conservative Republican legislators, however, increasingly believe that they’ll do well and are more likely to run. There is no such disparity among liberal and moderate Democratic legislators. Thus the recent rightward movement of the Republican Party is discouraging moderates from running for higher office, further contributing to the rightward shift.

Dominguez demonstrates that party leaders are active in congressional primaries, helping to advantage their preferred candidates by channeling campaign resources toward them. But the party leaders aren’t active evenly across districts. They tend to get involved more in competitive districts, helping to clear the field of lower-quality candidates to avoid the risks of losing the seat to the other party. In safer districts, they’re more likely to just let competing primary candidates and factions fight it out. Party leaders aren’t crazy about seeing their politicians tear each other apart in primaries, but getting involved can cause a lot of problems, and they’d rather not do that unless they think it could make the difference between winning and losing the seat in the general election.


Read the rest of this article, and more like it, at Pacific Standard Magazine

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