Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Party Ties Help in the House

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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If you're interested in political parties, elections and polarization, see the new research from my buddy Ray LaRaja and his co-authors Bruce Desmarais and Mike Kowal about the electoral importance of what I call "expanded parties." They show that in House elections, challengers supported by donors with ties to party networks do better than those who receive money from those without close party ties. They conclude that party-aligned donors "behave very much like traditional parties by backing a selective group of challengers and helping them win."

That matters in all sorts of ways. As they point out, it helps to explain partisan polarization, even when formal party organizations don't dictate candidate choice, and may even be relatively weak. In other words, the strength of party networks helps explain why politicians are loyal to their parties even when they seemingly don't need the formal party in order to get elected. To be sure, that's only a piece of it. It's also true, as I've shown, that most serious congressional candidates include staff, consultants, and volunteers with strong ties to the party network, ensuring that those candidacies will be strongly responsive to expanded parties even if the candidate isn't a partisan or might not want to behave as one.

Note that Ray and his co-authors are looking at the centrality of various donors to their party network. There's nothing about the kinds of splits that are involved in "establishment" versus "insurgent" fights. An objective measure of what constitutes an establishment group could be its centrality in the party network, but that probably wouldn't actually produce a map of what party fights look like, at least among Republicans. That's one of the reasons I try to avoid talking about a Republican "establishment."

At any rate, this is really important research. It's been established for some time that a self-funded dollar doesn't go as far as a donated dollar. This work suggests that an independently funded dollar doesn't go as far as a party-funded dollar, once we properly understand which dollars are coming from parties. That's certainly something both campaigns and those who observe them should know.

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