Primaries shed light on intra-party conflict in Congress

The U.S. Capitol is seen the day after the election

Opposition to a recent Sanders-sponsored amendment vote has put Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) squarely in the cross-hairs of progressive Members, activists, and voters. The episode has left Sen. Booker, at least for the moment, straddling the improbable gulf between presidential hopeful and potential primary target. Though reality will almost certainly settle on the former, the unfolding politics of Booker’s “Nay” is a reminder of the glaring intra-party conflicts on display in the recent election season, and part of a mounting body of evidence that suggests they will continue through the governing season.

Brushing up against this point is the question of consequence: that is, will these intra-party conflicts result in meaningful change? A recent Washington Post article grapples with the progressive side of this equation, and finds them lagging behind. Specifically, “establishment” candidates constituted roughly half of the Democratic candidates running in 2016 congressional primaries, while under 30 percent were “progressives.” Moreover, “progressive” candidates actually performed worse in 2016 than they did in 2014, winning 52 percent of the races they participated in—a rate about 16 points worse than their 2014 mark.

Chart showing breakdown of 2016 democratic candidates for Congress: 50% establishment, approx 30% progressive.

Evidence of internal conflict on the Republican side needs little exposition, but a difference of opinions on the issue of repealing and replacing the ACA between President-elect Trump, his own nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, and Hill Republicans, all while a Republican-led Congress careens towards its own preference, provides a recent, telling anecdote.

While it’s fair to say the truth of these matters lies in the future, it’s important to look back at the recent electoral season holistically. Doing so will help us evaluate whether 2016’s frequent “year of the outsider” characterization holds up—up and down the ballot—and provide insight into the progress of political movements and the prospects for change.

Coverage of the 2016 campaign season—primary and general—was dominated by the presidential race. Given the extraordinary nature of the presidential race, this isn’t surprising. But this phenomenon isn’t new: down ballot races nationwide regularly receive little attention from news media, and their turnout in the primary season suffers. Congressional primaries number among these overlooked contests, receiving scant coverage unless an incumbent suffers a surprising upset or there’s a scandal to cover. But these conditions are rare, so even in the absence of a drama-filled presidential campaign season, congressional primaries are likely to be ignored. Scholarship widely mimics this selective attention, and despite well-documented Congressional awareness of the importance of the primary contest and voters, congressional primaries persist in relative obscurity.

It is in this biennial tradition that The Primaries Project continues its work on congressional primaries, seeking to gain insight into the conversations within the Democratic and Republican parties, and it is because of this tradition that we can (perhaps most emphatically in this cycle) repeat our mantra: congressional primaries are the neglected stepchildren of election studies.

In 2016, the Primaries Project took a look at congressional primaries from two perspectives: the candidates and the voters. On the candidate side, we continued our 2014 work, collecting and coding information on the 1,682 candidates for House and Senate seats across the country. On the voter side, we use first-of-its-kind exit poll data on congressional primaries, conducted by Edison Research. The results are interesting and, given the internal party divisions unearthed in the 2016 presidential cycle seem to be leaking into the governing stage, worthy of immediate consideration.

See some key findings and read the papers here.