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Political science for amateurs

Jonathan Bernstein has some advice for the layman trying to navigate the political science waters. I tried to take his advice and download papers from the American Political Science Association's conference, but the 2009 page wasn't working and the 2008 page left me totally confused. But his link to The State of the Parties conference worked perfectly, and turned up this interesting paper (pdf) arguing that for all the attention on primary challenges, there's been no serious increase in them between 1970 and 2008.

There has been much discussion in the past few years of congressional incumbents being “primaried” – that is, of aggressive challenges being mounted from the left (for Democrats) or from the right (for Republicans) on the grounds that the incumbent has not been sufficiently partisan. In this paper I categorize the reasons behind primary challenges to incumbents from 1970 through 2008. Analysis of these reasons shows that there has been little change in the number of such primary challenges over this time period. Primary challenges are usually waged on the basis of scandal or the perceived ineptitude of the incumbent, or are a result of redistricting or racial divisions ... however, the rhetoric behind “primarying” may be an effective tool for ideological groups to threaten moderate incumbents, but this rhetoric bears little resemblance to the reality of congressional primary competition.

So what's with all the attention given to primary challenges? Well, the paper concludes, "mounting these campaigns can be an effective marketing tool," and it calls out the Club for Growth and Jane Hamsher's Accountability Now as organizations that have been particularly effective at using the threat of primaries to increase their visibility.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 13, 2010; 6:06 PM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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It is curious that he chose 1970 as his starting year, because it was about then that the Republican Right Wing began to get serious in going after moderates and progressives. Every wave of primary challenges to the center most members of the party both stiffened party discipline and rid the party of those Republicans most inclined to be bipartisan. It might me instructive to look at primary challenges in the forties, fifties, and sixties to get a better baseline.

There have always been and will always be dissidentsd, or reformers, willing to take on an incumbent because the challenger is sure the incumbent is vulnerable, but for organized party policy to be to attaqck incumbents from the right for purely discipline (read blackmail) or ideological reasons is "new".

Posted by: ceflynline | January 13, 2010 6:25 PM | Report abuse

There is compelling evidence that Sestak's primary challenge pushed Specter to the left. On the other hand, Lamont's successful challenge pushed Lieberman to the right. So it's clear you have to pick your battles carefully. That said it's not a good thing that the "machine" is preventing primary challenges in so many races. People deserve more choice.

Posted by: bmull | January 13, 2010 6:36 PM | Report abuse

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