Deep Local Roots Endure Even In Nationalized Partisan Political Era

March 5, 2021 by Dan McCue
The Grand Concourse of the Iowa State Fair, a popular venue for political candidates to rub elbows with the electorate. (Photo courtesy the Iowa State Fair)

WASHINGTON – A new study suggests the deeper a member of Congress’s local roots in their congressional district, the less likely they are to attract a primary challenger, and if they do, the more likely they are to win by a significant margin. 

The study, published in the latest edition of American Politics Research, a peer-reviewed academic journal, found that members with strong local ties are less than half as likely to attract a primary challenger than their less-rooted counterparts. 

Further, author Charles Hunt observed, when these members are challenged in a primary, they tend to win by margins almost 6 percentage points higher than comparable members with more tenuous ties to the communities they represent. 

“These results should compel scholars of congressional elections to reconsider what factors shape electoral dynamics in the district in the primary election stages, especially factors that allow MCs to differentiate themselves from one another,” Hunt wrote. 

“Local roots offer an important distinguishing characteristic for incumbent members of Congress in primary contests where ideological and partisan differences between the candidates are small. They also establish deep and lasting political, economic, and social networks that help them deter potential rivals for their party’s nomination in the district,” he added. 

The findings suggest that the depth of a member’s local roots among their constituents should be considered alongside other, more traditional factors, in models used to predict electoral outcomes in the district. 

“Not only do local roots have substantial impacts at the primary election stage, but the magnitude and statistical confidence of these impacts rival or in many cases overtake those of other important determinants of electoral outcomes like partisanship, ideology, tenure length, and election laws,” Hunt wrote.  

“Importantly,” he added, “local roots vary extensively between incumbent MCs, and help explain different electoral outcomes that occur between otherwise similar incumbent-constituency pairings.” 

City District/Country District 

The report acknowledged that one factor that could “complicate the potency” of these benefits is the type of geographic area that makes up a given congressional district. 

But Hunt said after carefully considering the differences between urban, suburban and rural districts, he found that the depth of a candidate’s local roots had a significant impact on the outcome of their race regardless of the district’s urban/rural status, geographic mobility or population density. 

He noted however that “future work might dig deeper into these differences” to assess the type of “Subconstituencies” within the district that might be more receptive than others to view local roots as an important credential for the candidate they choose to support. 

The Nationalization of Partisan Politics 

While a number of influential studies have offered compelling evidence that electoral politics are increasingly structured around national issues, partisan identities and polarized ideologies, Hunt found something reassuring in his research – that while the influence of local roots may have declined somewhat over recent decades, a nonpartisan and non-ideological connection with constituents still matters. 

In fact, he wrote, this “speaks volumes about its resilience in shaping the member-constituent relationship – and about the gaps that remain in explaining an electoral performance that nationalized partisanship does not yet satisfy.” 

He muses, “All politics is clearly no longer local, as former House Speaker Tip O’Neill used to say. But nor is it all national.”  

Sacrificing Once Constituency for Another 

Hunt conceded that the nationalization of politics undoubtedly makes it increasingly difficult for members seeking re-election to appeal to both ideologically extreme primary electorates and partisan-polarized general elections. 

“As a result, members often must sacrifice support from one subconstituency to please another,” he wrote, citing decades of earlier research. 

“Local roots pose no such risk, and as a result may also represent a potential avenue for scholars and other political practitioners searching for ways to de-polarize electorates on smaller scales,” Hunt continued.   

“However highly-engaged, deeply partisan, and ideologically extreme primary voters may be, they live in and care about the district as a place, and as their home; so, too, do many general election voters who may not share a member’s ideological or even partisan identity.  

“By its very definition, the local identity of the district is the one constituents of all stripes have in common. … Shared, place-based roots therefore represent a rare commodity for reelection-seeking MCs in an age of partisan nationalization: a local connection with their district that has widespread appeal and a significant, positive impact on an MC’s electoral fate regardless of party or ideology,” Hunt concluded. 

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