Is That 'Divisive' Primary Simply 'Contested'?
Book offers new method to measure party unity in primary season
Source Newsroom: University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Newswise — FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A new method of measuring political party cohesion could change the way we think about election primaries that appear to be divisive. This new approach has implications for political scientists and the public’s capacity to detect changes in support for each party in American government today.
In Invisible Hands of Political Parties in President Elections: Party Activists and Political Aggregation from 2004 to 2012, University of Arkansas researchers argue that measuring donor activity in the months before the primary election provides a more accurate depiction of party unity than candidate-centered measures do, such as those that depend on how many candidates represent each party.
The book was co-authored by Andrew Dowdle, Song Yang and Patrick Stewart, all of the University of Arkansas, along with Scott Limbocker, who earned a master’s degree at the University of Arkansas and is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt, and Karen Sebold, a visiting professor at the university.
Dowdle says that what people have traditionally come to think of as a “divisive” primary may be better defined as a “contested” primary.
“A contested nomination is where you end up having individuals from the same party who stay in the race for a long period of time and basically end up winning contests,” Dowdle said.
“Contested presidential primaries do not always equal general election defeat.”
The book argues that previous definitions of “divisive” presidential nominations have mistaken contested primaries as being inherently divisive and lightly contested primaries as being indicative of a unified, healthy party. The researchers found that to determine party divisiveness, it is more useful to look first at pre-primary donor activity.
The donations by party activists to more than one candidate within the same party may represent a unification of candidate ideology and party support. However, donations can also demonstrate party division when donors show support for candidates outside of party lines.
Take, for example, the 2008 election. Although the Democratic race was highly contested between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it should not necessarily be considered divisive. The candidates had many shared donors and, consequently, the party aggregated quickly behind Obama following Clinton’s withdrawal.
Though John McCain’s nomination was not highly contested in the Republican race, there was, nevertheless, evidence of party divisiveness within the pre-primary measurements of donor contributions. Specifically, pre-primary Republican activity showed that Republican funds were being pulled in three different directions and that Ron Paul supporters were more likely to give to the Obama campaign, too.
This finding also has implications for how the public conceives of each party’s political status.
“Conventional wisdom had always been that the Republicans were more unified because they were more homogeneous in terms of ethnicity, and that Democrats were heterogeneous on lots of levels,” Dowdle said.
However, a new method of measuring and analyzing party unity refutes this assumption. The researchers compared the “social networks” of each candidate and gauged their quantity of shared donors using “Social Network Analysis,” a data analysis method traditionally used in the field of sociology.
“By introducing Social Network Analysis in the project we are able to see the overall picture of whether the party is suffering from cleavage or is benefitting from unification,” said Yang, the primary methodologist in this research. “We can also see to what extent the party can pull in all their resources behind one or two candidates in support of them in the big stage of interparty competition in the presidential election.”
In future studies, the researchers will look into why this party unity or divisiveness occurs.
Dowdle is the vice-chair and associate professor of political science. Yang is an associate professor in the department of sociology. Stewart is an associate professor of political science. Sebold is a visiting professor in the department of political science.