The Primary Path for Turning Legislative Effectiveness into Electoral Success

Effective lawmakers are the workhorses of the US Congress, yet we know little about the electoral payoffs of their efforts. Are effective lawmakers better at warding off challengers in the next election? Do they win at a greater rate? To answer these questions, we draw on original data on congressional primary elections from 1980 to 2016, allowing us to focus on elections that lack partisan cues and where voters tend to be highly knowledgeable about politics. We find that incumbents receive an electoral boost in congressional primaries from their legislative work in Congress. Ineffective lawmakers are more likely to face quality challengers, and they lose their primaries at a greater rate than do more effective lawmakers. These differences diminish in the complex informational environment of a primary with multiple challengers. These findings provide important insights into the conditions under which voters hold their elected representatives accountable for their legislative successes and failures.

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Craig Volden