What Happens When Extremists Win Primaries?


This article studies the interplay of U.S. primary and general elections. I examine how the nomination of an extremist changes general-election outcomes and legislative behavior in the U.S. House, 1980–2010, using a regression discontinuity design in primary elections. When an extremist— as measured by primary-election campaign receipt patterns—wins a “coin-flip” election over a more moderate candidate, the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9–13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35–54 percentage points. This electoral penalty is so large that nominating the more extreme primary candidate causes the district’s subsequent roll-call representation to reverse, on average, becoming more liberal when an extreme Republican is nominated and more conservative when an extreme Democrat is nominated. Overall, the findings show how general-election voters act as a moderating filter in response to primary nominations.

American Political Science Review 109(1):18-42
Andrew B. Hall
Andrew B. Hall
Professor of Political Science

Professor of Political Science at Stanford University