Thursday, October 15, 2009

Getting primaried

Robert Boatright had some interesting takes on members of Congress
getting primaried. It gets a lot of attention but actually doesn't
happen that much, although ideological challenges to incumbents are on
the increase over the 2000s, particularly within the GOP. Still, the
numbers are nowhere near historic highs. But then they really don't
have to be. The threat from a group like the Club for Growth is
effective, Boatright says, until the group actually follows through.
Then the legislative campaign committee will invariably kick in and
help the incumbent, who usually prevails.

Here I disagree. I would guess that Joe Lieberman would rather have
avoided the Ned Lamont challenge if he could have. It weakened his
national profile, it destroyed his chances of becoming the Democratic
nominee for president, he ended up owing people like Barack Obama
favors, etc. Even if they're likely to win, incumbents would rather
avoid the challenge if possible. Challenges require too much work and
put you in the debt of others.


Gregory Koger said...

Seth, you mean a "strong" challenge in a party primary, right?

So why are these more rare nowadays? Presumably the supply of ambitious challengers is constant, so we need another story. And, it sounds like we need a model of intra-party candidate emergence.

Seth Masket said...

The argument was that groups like Club for Growth have limited resources and thus choose their targets strategically. Arlen Specter was vulnerable, they had a solid candidate in Pat Toomey, and there was enough of a serious GOP base that would turn out to make an investment in that contest worthwhile. At least so far, though, they haven't challenged Snowe or Collins in Maine, probably because they don't think enough rabid GOPers would turn out to make it a serious threat.

Rob Boatright said...

Seth --
I think you mischaracterize my argument somewhat (thought I'm always glad to get the attention). My point is this -- actual occurrences of getting primaried are rare, and the people who get primaried don't necessarily seem to change the behavior of those who get primaried. Wayne Gilchrest, for instance, didn't seem to do much, in terms of his voting, to ward off challengers although he was repeatedly primaried. I doubt Lieberman would have shifted to the left to avoid subsequent challenges. So primarying is not effective in pulling the people who actually are primaried away from the center, nor is it effective in replacing incumbents, Lieberman and Gilchrest aside. Where it may be effective is in (a) scaring incumbents who have not yet been primaried, but fret that this might happen. This, of course, is unmeasurable (I think). And (b) primarying raises the profile of groups like Club for Growth, MoveOn, etc., which may help them gain supporters, satisfy their members, and get attention, so that they are taken seriously in the future. My point was that primarying doesn't have any easily quantifiable effects, and seems to be a byproduct of general surges in the support of the party in which the primarying occurs. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them.

Seth Masket said...

Rob, I take your point. The data you presented were fascinating but just served to remind me how difficult it is to quantify this stuff. For example, here in Colorado, it didn't seem like a coincidence that Sen. Michael Bennet came out for the public option the day after Andrew Romanoff announced a primary challenge. It's entirely possible, however, that Romanoff will drop out of the race before the August primary. If that happens, Romanoff's challenge wouldn't even show up in your dataset, even if it had an effect on the incumbent's behavior. Additionally, other incumbents may stay to the left or right for the sole purpose of avoiding a primary challenge, and if they're successful we wouldn't be able to measure it.

At any rate, if we observe declining numbers of primary challenges, there are several interpretations:
1. Pressure groups like Club for Growth and MoveOn are becoming increasingly strategic in allocating resources.
2. Incumbents, through their use of LCCs, are able to preempt many primary challenges.
3. Incumbents have moved further to the ideological extremes.

I really don't know how we distinguish between these. There are a ton of non-barking dogs.