Broadly, my dissertation explored the consequences of the top-two primary reform for representation and electoral behavior in California and Washington. The top-two primary modifies the two-stage electoral process by placing all candidates into a single blanket primary. The two candidates that receive the most votes proceed to a runoff election, even if they are from the same party. My research finds that the top-two primary produces several important consequences for representative democracy. Specifically, I find that same-party general election contests enable challengers to earn twice as many votes per dollar spent, affect how candidates position themselves when they run for office, influence who runs for office, and change the methods and intensity with which candidates campaign.
Top-two primaries reshape the electoral process by changing the mix of opponents that candidates face, thus altering the electorate to which they must respond. Specifically, when top-two primaries produce two same-party opponents for the general election, candidates cannot simply rely on party-based voting to win. Advocates of the top-two primary system contend that if safe districts offer voters the choice between ideologically extreme and moderate candidates of the same party in the general election, voters should choose the more moderate option. Research to date suggests that this is not the case. If the top-two primary does invoke moderation, I argue that it should be because it is self-imposed by candidates in response to new electoral incentives. The change in primary rules should cause candidates to self-moderate in hopes of broadening the range of potential voters that they may capture. I test this proposition by examining the rhetoric found on state legislative candidate websites during the 2016 election. Results show that those facing same-party opponents use more moderate, bipartisan, and vague messaging when compared to those facing opponents of the opposite party.
The top-two primary system changes the typical two-stage electoral process by creating scenarios in which two candidates from the same party may face each other in the general election. In two-party contests, voters receive information from candidate party labels and from campaign outreach, which is facilitated by campaign expenditures. Combined, this information helps voters make decisions on Election Day. In the absence of differentiating party labels in one-party contests, the information provided by candidate spending should matter more. Specifically, I argue that expenditures made by challengers facing same-party opponents should be more effective for increasing vote share than expenditures made by those facing opposite-party opponents. This study examines state legislative elections in California and Washington to investigate how the effectiveness of challenger campaign expenditures is conditioned by the presence of either a one-party or two-party contest. Results find that as challengers in one-party contests spend more, they are able to increase their vote share at more than double the pace per dollar spent when compared to challengers in two-party contests.
“Quality challenger emergence under the top-two primary: Comparing one-party and two-party general election contests.” Under review. Working paper available here.
Prior research finds that the emergence of a quality challenger is one of the most important factors predicting whether incumbents will be vulnerable. Reformers in California and Washington envisioned that the top-two primary reform would increase electoral competition by allowing for general election contests that feature two same-party candidates in safe districts. In this research note, I investigate the degree to which these expectations have been fulfilled by looking at the prevalence of quality challengers in U.S. House contests. I compare one-party and two-party general election contests, finding that quality challengers are significantly more likely to run against a same-party incumbent, all else equal. Results complement our understanding of how electoral institutions condition challenger entry decisions and reveal a key way in which the top-two primary may fulfill reformers’ expectations.
“Campaign dynamics of the top-two primary: Uncertainty, competition, and candidate strategy in one-party contests.” Under review. Working paper available here.
The top-two primary reshapes the electoral process by changing the mix of opponents that candidates face, thus broadening the electorate to which they are pressured to respond. When top-two primaries produce general election contests between two candidates of the same party, they can no longer rely only on party-based voting to win. In this paper, I investigate how same-party contests influence candidate campaign strategies by interviewing state legislative candidates in Washington State and North Carolina. I focus on candidates in districts that strongly favor one party, but those in Washington faced opponents from within their own party. Two key findings emerge from these interviews. First, candidates intentionally moderate and broaden their appeal in one-party contests. Second, candidates in one-party contests adopt campaign strategies that are commensurate with a highly-competitive contest.
“Can citizens be moved to accept compromise in legislative policymaking?” Presented at the 2019 APSA Annual Meeting. Conference paper available here (manuscript is currently being revised).
In this paper, we explore citizen attitudes towards compromise in the policymaking process. By doing so, we consider the notion that congressional dysfunction and partisan gridlock may be—at least partially—driven by elite responsiveness to public preferences. There is indeed evidence that some constituents incentivize their representatives to behave in a partisan manner that undermines the institution of Congress. While citizens favor the principle of compromise in the abstract, support drops substantially when surveys spell-out tradeoffs on specific issues that people care about. We use an experimental design to investigate whether citizens may be moved to become more accepting of compromise. We employ research on norms to argue theoretically that raising the salience of norms of citizenship and compromise could increase citizen support for compromise. Then, we empirically test whether evoking these norms may indeed move citizen attitudes. Results show that when prompted by a co-partisan political elite to accept compromise, citizens recognize compromise as being more important, yet they are no more likely to accept their own representative engaging in compromise. That is, citizens perceive—but do not yield to—normative pressure to compromise.
“Descriptive representation and the top-two primary: Candidate sex as a voting heuristic.”
In this paper, I explore the effects of the top-two primary for the descriptive representation of women. In same-party contests, voters must use alternative heuristics when contests are both low-information and lack differentiating party labels. One such cue is candidate sex, whereby voters assume that women candidates are more liberal than their male counterparts. I argue that one consequence of the top-two primary is that it negatively affects vote share for Democratic women, who account for more than three-quarters of women who run for office. Thus, while reformers expected the top-two primary to produce more accurate representation of the mass public, I argue that the top-two primary is an institution that acts as a barrier to descriptive representation.
“Organized interests, campaign contributions, and legislative polarization under the top-two primary.”
In this paper, I investigate another pathway through which the top-two primary may mitigate legislative polarization. Prior research looks to legislators’ floor votes for evidence of moderation, finding mixed support. However, floor votes are only one small part of the legislative process. As Hall and Wayman (1990) show, campaign contributions are a powerful mobilizer for allied legislators at the committee stage. Contributions also demobilize opposing legislators at this stage, including those who will go on to vote against the bill on the floor. Given the importance of contributions for legislator activity during the committee process, I investigate how the top-two primary affects contribution patterns. Specifically, I use scores from the Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections to show how one-party contests shape the ideological coalition of a candidate’s donors. I expect that legislators who have faced same-party opponents will receive contributions from a broader ideological coalition of donors, all else equal.