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Political Science in the Raw: The Papers That Could Change Politics in the Coming Years

A review of new material presented at the Midwest Political Science Association's annual conference in Chicago this past weekend.
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I’ve just returned from the Midwest Political Science Association’s annual conference in Chicago. This conference is always a favorite of mine. It’s quite big, but it tends to draw a large proportion of people who study American politics and methods—my kind of folks. It also draws a healthy combination of graduate students using cutting-edge techniques and established scholars with practical experience, and allows opportunities for mentorship and the sharing of ideas.

I wanted to use this opportunity to highlight just a handful of papers I saw that struck me as interesting and topical, mainly to give readers an idea of what political scientists (or at least the kind that tend to show up at MPSA) are currently up to. These pretty much overlap with my issue areas (party polarization, state and local politics, etc.) and hardly represent the full range of papers on display. But, hey, they caught my eye.

Just to be clear: these are conference papers. That means they’re often first drafts of things that will end up as dissertations, books, chapters, or journal articles. The quality of scholarship for such papers is usually quite high, but they have not undergone any sort of peer review and have probably only received modest feedback so far. (Really, that’s why we present them at conferences.) Chances are, they will undergo significant changes before they end up in print, which may take years, or never even happen. But this is where the ideas begin.

Political reformers concerned about party polarization and gridlock tend to advocate open primaries; let more moderate voters participate in the primaries, and you’ll get more moderate officeholders, right? Well, actually, no—primary types seems to have almost no impact on the voting behavior of elected officials. Norrander et al.'s paper helps explain why. The argument is that when you create open primaries, you tell moderate voters that they don’t need to be registered members of a party in order to participate in the primary election. So the only people that remain as registered partisans are the hard-core ideologues. Conversely, in a closed primary state, moderates who want to vote in a primary have to join a party, making the party as a whole more moderate. The paper suggests that closed primaries might actually help make parties, and their officeholders, more moderate.

Some recent research has demonstrated that while our congressional parties have been polarizing in recent years, Republicans are moving rightward more quickly than Democrats are moving leftward. What kind of effect does this have on people thinking of running for Congress? Using a survey of state legislators and their roll call voting recordsestimates of their ideological positions derived from campaign donation patterns, Thomsen finds that moderate Republican state legislators increasingly believe that they could not survive a Republican congressional primary and thus decide not to run for Congress. Conservative Republican legislators, however, increasingly believe that they’ll do well and are more likely to run. There is no such disparity among liberal and moderate Democratic legislators. Thus the recent rightward movement of the Republican Party is discouraging moderates from running for higher office, further contributing to the rightward shift.

Dominguez demonstrates that party leaders are active in congressional primaries, helping to advantage their preferred candidates by channeling campaign resources toward them. But the party leaders aren’t active evenly across districts. They tend to get involved more in competitive districts, helping to clear the field of lower-quality candidates to avoid the risks of losing the seat to the other party. In safer districts, they’re more likely to just let competing primary candidates and factions fight it out. Party leaders aren’t crazy about seeing their politicians tear each other apart in primaries, but getting involved can cause a lot of problems, and they’d rather not do that unless they think it could make the difference between winning and losing the seat in the general election.

I’d also call attention to this roundtable session on Congress and National Science Foundation funding (as summarized by me and my colleagues at the Mischiefs of Faction blog). At the session, U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (who holds a Ph.D. in political science from Duke) joined several prominent political scientists in discussing strategies for scholars to engage politically and affect upcoming congressional debates about NSF funding. The session was unfortunately under-attended due to its shared time slot with this interesting roundtable on the 2012 election, featuring friends-of-political-science Nate Silver and Ezra Klein.

One of the recurring messages in several of these discussions was that we scholars need to do more to make our work public. This is undoubtedly true (and conference attendees who haven’t posted their papers on the conference website really should do so), but I would also encourage members of the public with an interest in politics to check out some of this work. Yes, some of it is a bit rough, some of it is highly technical, and some of it may well turn out to be wrong. But the things we will know to be true in five years are already getting their start at conferences like this today.