Research News

Study: Effective legislators do better at the primary polls

Alan Wiseman (Vanderbilt)

Primary voters prefer incumbents with a proven record of success, according to a new working paper from the Center for Effective Lawmaking, co-directed by Alan Wiseman, Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt, and Craig Volden, professor of public policy and politics at the University of Virginia.

Turning Legislative Effectiveness into Electoral Success analyzed data from congressional primaries from 1980-2016 to examine whether primary voters reward effectiveness at the ballot box. Wiseman and Volden’s co-authors are Danielle Thomsen at the University of California-Irvine and Sarah Treul at the University of North Carolina.

“We focused on primaries because primary voters tend to be the most engaged members of the electorate, and thus would be most familiar with the candidates’ records,” said Wiseman. “Additionally, most primary voters align with the same party as the candidates, so focusing on nominating contests meant we were able to remove partisan motives from the equation.”

One of the core research projects of the Center for Effective Lawmaking is the creation of the Legislative Effectiveness Score—a measurement of how well a member of Congress advances his or her agenda in Congress through the lawmaking process.

The researchers found that incumbents with better scores tended to outperform incumbents with worse scores come primary day in two important ways. First, highly effective incumbents faced fewer genuinely competitive primary challengers than less effective incumbents—only about half as many. Second, while most incumbents do almost always win their primaries no matter how effective they are, the least effective incumbent lawmakers are about nine times more likely than the most effective incumbent lawmakers to be that exception to the rule.

The researchers say these findings indicate that legislators should not feel obliged to play it safe in Washington in order to secure reelection—voters really do care about their representatives’ abilities to advance their legislative agendas, not just their political positions.

“This is exciting new research as the scope and consequence of the relationship between legislative effectiveness and primary success speaks directly to questions about how representatives approach their time in Congress,” said Volden. “Cautious incumbents may want to take note that electoral and lawmaking goals are not incompatible—often they are one and the same.”