Anticipating Trouble

Today’s conventional wisdom tells us that Congress is broken and that polarization is to blame. Polarization explains why Democrats and Republicans can’t transcend their differences and compromise on a regular basis. The implication of this view is that so-called “extremist” elements in both parties are responsible for Congress's polarization-fueled dysfunction. That is, liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans outside of Congress make compromise hard, if not impossible, inside it. This leads to gridlock in Congress because its members fear to lose in a contested primary.

But contested primaries are rare. Since 1970, only 2.8 percent of the incumbents who sought re-election were defeated in a primary election.

Juxtaposing the conventional wisdom with observed reality reveals a puzzle: How can liberal and conservative primary challengers be responsible for the present polarization in Congress if incumbents rarely lose such contests?

I consider this puzzle in a recent paper co-authored by Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution. In it, we suggest that the fear of being primaried prompts members of Congress to change their behavior in ways that reduce the likelihood of it occurring and that increase their chances of prevailing in a contested primary if a challenger actually emerges. Our working theory is straightforward: The general phenomenon of contested primaries impacts individual members psychologically and causes them to adapt to the possibility of a primary challenge continually.

We based our examination on four assumptions present in the existing work on congressional primaries.

  1. All incumbents have reason to worry about a primary threat.

  2. Incumbents believe contested primaries hurt their chances in the general election.

  3. Incumbents exaggerate the frequency of successful primary challenges.

  4. Incumbents think that behavior changes help deter or defeat challengers.

Our findings reveal four ways incumbents react to primary threats.

  1. They stay close to their primary constituency to help identify potential threats early, to create a shield to defend against them if necessary, and not to lose sight of the issues about which their base cares the most.

  2. They believe that outside advocacy groups are essential especially in primary races and they either adapt their behavior accordingly or attempt to influence the position of such groups.

  3. They defer to leaders to structure the legislative agenda to avoid issues that will upset their primary constituencies. When that is not possible, members try to consider must-pass legislation in the least damaging way possible.

  4. Members believe that party unity- both back home and in D.C. – is an essential element to prevailing in a contested primary. This reinforces their desire to structure the legislative agenda to avoid issues that will upset their primary constituencies because those issues also divide the party back home and in D.C.

To the extent that gridlock is synonymous with inaction, our findings suggest that liberal and conservative activists competing in primaries are not the proximate cause of Congress's present dysfunction. Instead, efforts by members to avoid such contests better explain why Congress does not act.