Dear Colleagues? Primary Election Systems and Bipartisanship in the United States Senate, 1993-2019
Fernández, Nicholas Alexander
Morrison, Donna R.
Many Americans view Congress as an institution mired in a period of exceptional gridlock, illustrated by its struggle to pass popular, transformational legislation, let alone fulfill the basic duty of keeping government open. Scholars have often pointed to polarization as a culprit, with greater ideological consistency disincentivizing coalitions across the aisle. Yet declining productivity and lack of cooperation observed in roll call votes overlooks other ways bipartisanship manifests itself in the legislative process. Members seek out bipartisan cosponsorships – and sign their own names to others’ legislation – for more bills than are ever passed, signaling a willingness to work together. If one assumes bipartisanship produces better policy, or at least makes policy more likely to pass, it is reasonable to seek reforms that encourage such behavior.An option often touted as a step toward greater consensus – typically shorthand for the “moderate middle” – is to open primary elections beyond registered members of either party. The intuitive claim is that broadening the primary electorate will help nominate general election candidates who are more likely to govern with the median voter in mind. This study tests that theory in the context of the Senate, which simultaneously has a greater tradition of cooperation than the House of Representatives yet has nonetheless become a legislative “graveyard” in recent decades. Using sponsorship and cosponsorship activity as a more inclusive measure of behavior than roll call votes, I examine whether senators nominated by closed primaries are less likely to attain a bipartisan record than those chosen via more open systems. Although I do find that deviation from the “center” is in fact associated with reduced probability of bipartisanship, non-closed systems fail to improve likelihoods when holding ideology and other variables constant. Of course, the question of increasing the rate of bipartisan bills passed by the Senate is distinct from encouraging bipartisan behavior earlier in the process. However, if the latter is deemed an area where improvement should nonetheless be made, reforming who can participate in primaries may be an insufficient policy option.
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