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The Electoral Challenge of Balancing Primary and General Electorates (WP-23-07)

Sarah Anderson, Daniel Butler, and Laurel Harbridge-Yong

U.S. legislators face a two-stage election process, incentivizing them to appeal to both their base – the primary electorate – and their broader constituency – the general electorate. However, the preferences of the primary and general electorate can be in tension on important policy issues. The researchers argue and show empirically that legislators have incentives to be more responsive to primary voters because primary voters are more unified in their policy preferences and because voters in primaries are more responsive to the policy positions of incumbents than are voters in general elections. Senators’ roll call votes demonstrate that the primary electorate’s preference is a more important factor than the general electorate’s preference on cross-pressured votes. The findings point to the incentives legislators face to be more responsive to primary than general election voters – an insight that has implications for representation of the views of underrepresented voters and the role of primary elections in polarization.

Sarah Anderson, Professor, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California Santa Barbara

Daniel Butler, Professor of Political Science, Washington University in St. Louis

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Associate Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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