Commentary & Analysis

No One Guarding the House | The implications of increasingly ‘crowded’ U.S. Congressional primaries

Summary

“Exclusive, Opaque, and Smoke-Filled Backrooms”

These are the words many associate with becoming a major party nominee for U.S. Congress. If asked how Congressional candidates get on the ballot, most Americans would probably describe a party-run, tightly controlled, and highly selective process designed to find the parties’ best candidates. At a minimum, there has to be someone, somewhere in the process who’s job it is to keep the most extremist, dangerous and power-hungry candidates from running in the first place.

Unfortunately, the truth is very different.

The traditional institutions who (for better or worse) used to do this gatekeeping, state parties and the media, have neglected this duty in order to focus on only the most competitive, nationally important elections. While many flippable seats are overseen by the national parties, the safe seats (roughly 80% of all seats) go ignored, with no real candidate recruitment or field-clearing.

For most of the country, no one is guarding who does, or doesn’t, make it to the House of Representatives.

This dynamic has turned Congressional primary elections, the only true contest for these safe seats, into crowded, chaotic, free-for-alls where fringe candidates can thrive. 

With Congress increasingly unable to pass popular legislation and the partisan temperature at an all-time high, we wanted to see what these primary elections are like empirically. Are there metrics that help us understand the anecdotal rise in uncompromising candidates, and what incentives from the primary system impact the policy decisions of all representatives?

To do this we looked at every member of Congress elected since 2010. They had a few things in common that help explain their origins, and give further evidence that no one is minding the store.

Nearly all of them emerged from large, contentious, primaries (on avg. 6 candidates), with winners getting as little as 45%, 40% even 35%. The average number of candidates in key primaries – both Republican and Democratic – has risen every year since 2010. In this period, races with seven or more candidates occurred over 150 times. If we’re wrong and the parties are trying to keep the field small, they are doing a bad job.

As the process gets more decentralized and democratic, Congressional primaries are getting more crowded. More candidates sounds (and is) good. The truth is that more candidates leads to vote-splitting, and that is the best way for extreme candidates to win.

And it’s getting worse, but there is hope.


The Realities of Running for Congress in the ‘10s and ‘20s

Nearly All New U.S. Reps Emerge from Contested Primaries

Nearly all successful, modern U.S. Representatives share a common origin – a victory in a primary election. These elections are a great place to look, as they have the same format across states and are often the only election that matters in deep red or blue districts. The first question to ask is, “how common are primaries in the first place?” The short answer: very.

From 2009 through Jan. 12, 2021, 485 non-incumbents won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Of the 485 people who made it to Congress, nearly all of them, 88% (n=427) faced a true primary challenge*. To put it another way, you only had a 12% (n=58) chance of running uncontested for your party’s nomination. The days of a candidate just walking straight into their party’s nomination for the general election are largely over.

In fact, most people never see the general election. Over this period, 81% of all candidates (n=2,143) would never see the general, losing in the primary. By far, the average Congressional candidate’s experience is running against their fellow party members in a primary and losing.

Of the 485 members, 320 are still there today. That means 75% of the current Congress are products of contested primaries. Just another reason why understanding the origin story of these new legislators is so important.

*We considered any primary open to the public, run by the state, with two or more candidates as contested. Party appointments, exclusive party-run conventions, or races with one candidate were deemed uncontested

The Number of Primary Candidates Has Risen Every Cycle Since 2009

We’re all familiar with the term gerrymandering. But few are familiar with the scale of its impact on what candidates make it to Congress. Right now, the vast majority of Congressional districts are designed to largely favor one party or another. According to the Cook Political Report, 80% of Congressional districts in 2021 were “Solid” seats for one party – meaning the other party has no viable way to win. This situation is expected to stay the same after redistricting this year.

This in turn makes the primary the only true contest for the seat. So not only is the primary a candidate’s first test, for most, it is the only thing between them and decades of power in Congress. 

With so much on the line, naturally, a primary can attract many contenders. In the 427 contested primaries in this period, a combined 2,570 candidates threw their hats in the ring. That is an average of 6.0 candidates running in each primary.

Six contested races from the 2022 cycle not shown here, as sample size is too low.

Primary fields have only gotten bigger over the years. In the 2010 cycle, the average number of candidates per contested primary was 5.2 (over 85 races). In the last cycle, 2020, the average was 7.3 (65 races), nearly a 40% increase in competitors. In fact, in every cycle since 2010, the average number of candidates per contested primary has increased.

The Majority of New Members Emerged from Republican Primaries

It’s important to remember that unlike general elections, primaries are not mandated. Primaries are only triggered when multiple candidates from the same party file for the same seat. Primaries against sitting incumbents happen, but the chance of success is low. While high-profile, only 10.4% of new members beat a sitting member in a primary on their way to Congress (n=42). Put another way, 89.6% of races that produced a new member of Congress came from open seats.

Over a majority of new members, 54% (n=228), came from Republican primaries. The Tea Party wave in 2010, friendly redistricting in 2012, and a host of open, safe seats due to retirement, etc. likely enticed more candidates to fight for a seat. With similar factors going into 2022, it is likely there will be many, many Republican candidates and primaries this year.

Of the 427 contested primaries 29% (n=124) were Democratic primaries, and 18% (n=75) were nonpartisan blanket primaries. Interestingly, Republican and Democratic primaries attracted a similar number of candidates, 5.5 and 5.3 respectively. Nonpartisan blanket primaries, used in California, Louisiana, Washington and some other states’ special elections attracted a lot of candidates. In 75 blanket primaries, 659 candidate ran, resulting in an average field of 8.8*.

*All parties run in blanket primaries. Usually a top-two runoff is held if no one receives over 50%. A blanket primary’s top vote-getter is considered the winner in this review.

Lowering the Bar – More Candidates Means Fewer Votes to Win

There is no election where candidates are more similar than in a party primary.

Most primary candidates, largely, will agree on the core party issues. As you can imagine, that makes it difficult to stand out. When there are more candidates it becomes more likely that vote-splitting will occur. Vote-splitting happens whenever people are forced to only pick one candidate, splitting support among similar candidates. This is bad for three reasons.

First, it “lowers the bar” of votes needed to win. Each new candidate in a race will generally lower everyone else’s vote share – imagine splitting a pie with more and more people. The effect is more intense if a new candidate is similar in any way to existing ones.

You can see that with more candidates in a primary, the less of the electorate was needed to win. This fact is well known by candidates, and impacts how they campaign. Let’s say an extreme candidate knows they will get 36% support no matter what. That may not be enough if there are 2 or 3 candidates, but they would win if there are 7 or more. They just have to wait for each new non-extreme candidate to lower the bar more. With the field split, the fringe’s small but intensely dedicated slice of the electorate can be enough.

Second, it is harder and harder to say a winner is the true choice of the people. Out of the 427 new members who won primary challenges, a majority of them received less than 45% of the vote (52%, n=223). Across the board, 38% (n=164) of all primary winners earned less than 40% of ballots cast. Even the subset of the population that is primary voters may not be getting what they want in their elections.

Third, needing only a small group of primary votes to win discourages broadening your appeal on the campaign trail or in government. Keeping that small group happy therefore becomes your sole goal in policymaking, re-election, etc.


Safe Seat? Might As Well Give It A Shot

Finally, we added the Cook Political Report rating for each of the 485 races at the time they were held. We did this to see if the “safeness” of the seat had an impact on the amount of candidates the primary attracted. Knowing a seat’s rating is a good way to get in the mind of the candidates, as they surely would’ve considered the seat’s ratings when deciding whether or not to run.

The “Safer” the Seat, the More Candidates the Primary Attracts

According to the Cook Political Report ratings at the time the contested primary took place, 49% (209 of 427) of the elections were in “Solid Democratic” or “Solid Republican” U.S. Congressional districts. Cook breaks down their ratings into four general categories for each race. A “Solid” rating means that there is virtually no way for party favored to lose the seat.

Regardless of the party favored, when the rating became more solid, the more candidates on average showed up to contest the primary. “Toss up” seats seemed to be less desirable, falling below average at 4.6 candidates. On the other hand, Solid seats pulled in nearly 2.5 more candidates than Toss Up seats (a 55% increase).

This Trend Is Evident Across Parties

Both Democratic and Republican-favored seats saw this trend. It’s safe to assume that a solid seat for your party seems more attractive than a seat where a tough general election lies after a contested primary. As well, races for more competitive seats are more likely to be overseen by the national parties. In flippable seats, the parties are more likely to help a favored candidate make the general by trying to scare off primary challengers.

Notice how dramatically the average number of primary candidates falls, as the general election gets more competitive.

Safe Seat = Lots of Candidates = Less Votes Needed to Win

It should not be surprising that in the most hotly contested primaries – which in this period were Republican primaries – that vote-splitting appears to have played a huge role. The average level of support for the top vote-getter was just 40% in those elections. Winners in solidly Democratic seats fared better, but still averaged below 50%. 

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As mentioned in the “Lowering the Bar” section, more candidates almost always results in vote-splitting, as it’s highly likely new candidates share similarities with existing ones. The result is that fewer voters are needed to win.

So far there have been seven special elections held in 2021 due to deaths or resignations. In one of those, the party internally selected their nominee. The other six were properly contested primaries available to the general public. To fill those six seats, 85 candidates ran. That’s an average of 14.2 candidates with the top vote-getters averaging just 38.4%.

While the sample is small, this does give us an early indication that the trends will continue into 2022. It is unlikely the average will stay so high, but early data suggests the number of candidates will continue to climb this cycle, just as it has every cycle these 10+ years.

There’s a good chance we may see more candidates than ever before in 2022. These midterm primaries may see the worst vote-splitting in U.S. history. 


Why Are More People Running? And Why Care?

Here, we give our best guesses, informed by our experience working with and alongside U.S. Congressional campaigns in the past. While there are a multitude of factors, we will focus on the factors we see as the primary drivers.

Traditionally, two groups held significant leverage over a prospective Congressional candidacy – the state party and the local media. The state party controlled access to the donor class, party infrastructure and manpower. While the media vetted candidates and controlled coverage of their events. Both of these institutions lost substantial power in the 2010s and 2020s. That loss of power, plus a greater democratization of the electoral process, has opened the candidate floodgates.

Staying Out of It – State Parties On the Sidelines

This may be surprising, but state-level political parties largely stay as far away as possible from their primaries. So why have parties relinquished control of their primaries, and therefore who represents them in the general election? 

First, we must remember that all parties have wings. A state party supporting one candidate will be seen as favoring one wing over others. It’s not worth potentially losing support from a wing of a party to pick a favorite, especially in a safe seat. As the field of candidates and the diversity of wings represented grows, it gets much stickier for the party to play favorites.

From the party’s view, it’s a waste of state party resources to get involved in primaries for safe seats, as there is little return on investment. Time and money used to dissuade a candidate in a safe seat, takes away resources from competitive ones.

Additionally, if a seat is competitive at all, it’s far more likely that the national campaign arms (DCCC or NRCC) will take a leading role. Those organizations may do some field clearing, but only to help their favored candidates in the most flippable seats. It’s important to note, that these close elections are usually the only ones the national parties get involved with in any way. The state parties will still try to recruit here and there, but that does not outweigh their total inability to stop other people from running.

That is because candidates have more access to funding than ever before, reducing potential party leverage to almost nothing. Individuals can self-fund, receive unlimited financial support through PACs, or fundraise nationally online for cheap. State parties, pressured to be neutral, will almost never give a candidate money or resources while they are in the primary election. In fact, parties can charge high prices to primary candidates for access to party resources like voter databases that they offer to general election candidates for free.

Parties have also lost control on their chief monopoly. Traditionally state parties controlled “who’s turn” it was to run, and would use party resources to help candidates qualify for the ballot. This was key to both keeping fields small and keeping the parties constituent ethnic groups, geographies, or wings together. Qualifying for the ballot, overall, is easier and less party-centric than decades ago. Today, nearly all qualifying is controlled through state governments, and usually only requires gathering signatures. Most people, with a few friends, some clipboards, and enough time, can do it themselves.

Today, a constellation of groups, burned by parties’ old “wait in line” system, have taken things into their own hands. Groups like VoteVets, Emerge America, Maggie’s List, The Collective, Our Revolution, etc. are just some of the many organizations who recruit, qualify, and support their own candidates, totally independent of parties. The fundamental tenet of these groups is to not “to wait your turn” but to run despite what parties or powerbrokers think.

Who’s the Frontrunner? – Candidates Making Decisions with Little Information

Financial pressures and the reorganization of the news media industry have greatly diminished local outlets’ role in primary elections. Today covering primary elections are risky and messy endeavors with little upside for news organizations.

Practically, there are a few factors that make covering a large primary challenging. It becomes hard to feature, vet or facilitate debates with all the candidates when there are so many. Featuring one, creates a pressure (legally or otherwise) to offer “equal time” to everyone – which drains staff and company resources. Features would usually outline candidates’ strengths and fundraising ability – two factors that would weigh greatly on a potential challenger.

Today, news organizations almost never run polls for anything below statewide office (Governor or Senator). Polls are expensive, and with little reader interest in safe Congressional seats, there is little news value or financial upside. Without polling, news outlets can’t whittle down coverage to just the “frontrunners.” This also turns “who has raised the most money” into the only somewhat useful, publicaly available metric.

The final factor is news value. Reporters know that their audience cares more if the seat will be red or blue than the individuals running. If a Congressional seat is safe for one party, they will usually “wait” for the primary to end before covering the overall contest. If they do cover the primary, it’s usually only after the filing deadline. That can be only a few months or weeks before primary Election Day, and at that point the field has already materialized. Mudslinging or attacks will sometimes bring attention to a primary, but obviously that only highlights the offenders.

Potential candidates may see the lack of press coverage around existing candidates as a sign of weakness and decide they could do better.

Anyone Can Do It – Democratization of the Campaign Process

Without the state parties or prodding local media to dissuade them, individuals are deciding for themselves. They are making these decisions in a new era of accessible technology and high-profile, against-all-odds underdog stories. 

Over the last decade, the use of the internet has fully matured in the campaign realm. It costs virtually nothing to create a social media account, a website, and a platform to accept donations. A wave of privatization of previously party-controlled services has made it even more accessible. There are now vendors offering services to voter databases, marketing data, campaign staffing, and signature gathering at low prices. We’ve seen databases that model whether you own a dog, a gun, or a specific type of car – and how good a voter that makes you for a potential campaign.

The truth is, you don’t need the party, the media or even a lot of money to start a Congressional campaign – anyone can do it.

In the 2010s we saw surprising underdog primary victories by people who bucked the traditional gatekeepers. The most obvious is former President Donald Trump’s primary victories in 2016. There was also Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beating 10-term incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary in 2018. The decade also saw the triumph of David Brat over House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in the Republican primary in 2014. The victories of these “outsiders” continue to inspire others to run, even in the face of nearly impossible odds.

It’s also simple economics. Congressional seats are rare. A seat opening up in a district may literally be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As well, the “supply” is likely higher than ever before. A very blue Congressional district is likely to have Democrats dominate all the lower levels of government, too. This means when a seat opens up, there are many ambitious Democratic mayors, state reps, council members, etc. who all can make a viable argument for running in this new era. On top of that, you have the constellation of activist organizations working independently to find and run their own candidates. The rarity of openings, the deep bench of local elected officials, and candidates inspired by other organizations quickly create crowded fields.

Finally, politics can attract people with ambition…and egos. Members of Congress can be household names, nearly celebrities. For the ambitious – being a cable news darling greatly boosts your awareness and support for potential runs at higher office. While those with big egos may be attracted to fame and seeing themselves on TV. These incentives pull in all kinds of people who approach the process with varying degrees of seriousness. We have seen a lot of people in our campaign experiences who either underestimated, or just didn’t think about, how intensely difficult running for Congress could be.


So What?

The problem is that we’ve learned that every new candidate – serious or otherwise – has a large impact on the election’s outcome.

For every new candidate in the race, other candidate(s) will likely lose votes due to vote-splitting. Sometimes that’s a group of moderate candidates who lower the bar so much, a fringe firebrand wins. Sometimes that’s the top-vote getter, who walks away with no mandate.

It’s a lose-lose. The only winners being the most uncompromising of candidates.

Vote-splitting needs two things – lots of candidates, and plurality voting. Plurality voting, also known as choose-one voting, is where voters are limited to voting for one candidate, even if they like multiple candidates. If you’ve ever struggled with the question, “do I vote for the most ‘electable’ or my favorite?” you have experienced the reality of vote-splitting. 

As we outlined earlier, the sheer number of candidates in these elections are overwhelming our system. Voters struggle with questions of ‘electability,’ parties are powerless in who represents them, and local media struggle to offer information on increasingly complex elections to a changing audience.

If people expect that someone, somewhere is in control of who is running for Congress, they are wrong. There is no one guarding the House like they used to.

There is a positive here. This is true democratization of the process. Fewer gatekeepers are standing in the way of candidates who have been traditionally marginalized or left out. Anecdotally, a primary driver of the candidate surge is an increase in diversity – of opinions, gender, culture and backgrounds.

CES greatly supports anything that diversifies the candidate pool and opens up the political process to more people. The best thing we can do is point out the truth that simply finding representative candidates to run is not enough. Ending vote-splitting should also be a major priority for all who care about achieving greater representation. Doing this will not guarantee anyone victories, but it will stop being a major factor in losses.

Vote-Splitting Hurts Democratic Governance and Helps Extremism

Since most seats are safe, candidates know that after their first primary, they cannot be beat. That sense of invincibility has one weakness, born from their primary experience. The product of a vote-split primary themselves, they know how chaotic they can be.

Their sole incentive then is to keep their plurality of the parties’ primary voters happy, forget the party or general public. Why work with moderate Republicans if all you need to do is please some hardcore Democrats? And vice versa. The general popularity of policies matters far less than popularity among your slice of the primary electorate. Keep them happy at all costs.

Finally, to say the quiet part out loud – extremists love this broken primary system. By extremists, I mean the small minority of the American electorate who support views that most Americans would consider far from the mainstream or even dangerous. These views are often backed by calls, overt or otherwise, for drastic means like violence, instilling fear, sewing disinformation or trying to functionally destroy competitors.

Extremists love vote-splitting because they know they can not win competitive general elections. They can, however, get their supporters into Congress by winning those all-important and crowded primary elections for safe seats. Our system favors uniqueness, not broad support. In a crowded field of people who largely agree, extreme views definitely stand out. Institute reforms to fix vote-splitting, and watch, the most extreme groups will cry bloody murder. Why? You’ll be taking away their main way of gaining power.

What to Do About It

Our system is being overwhelmed by a crush of candidates, and because of vote-splitting, some very extreme and uncompromising ones are getting through. 

Remember vote-splitting needs two parts – multiple candidates, and plurality voting. Stopping the inundation of candidates is both untenable and undesirable. Voters still like options, and it seems like with more candidates also comes more forms of diversity. What remains is plurality voting – and that we can fix tomorrow.

At this point, you may expect me to make the case for ranked-choice voting, but we are suggesting something else and we will give you a few reasons why. We advocate for another system, called approval voting. In approval voting, you vote for all the candidates you support. The one approved by the most of the electorate wins. That’s it.

So why approval voting? The number one reason is that it could be rolled out tomorrow.

A sample approval voting ballot in St. Louis, MO.

That is because approval voting costs almost nothing to implement. Nearly every voting machine in the U.S. can already do it. In most jurisdictions in the country, there are elections where you already vote for multiple people at a time. You may vote to fill two school board seats, or up to three council members, for example. This is called a bloc plurality election. If your machines can handle that, they can run approval voting elections. Approval is very similar, except you just remove the limits on the voter, and usually just one person wins. St. Louis and Fargo have moved to approval voting elections in the last two years, and the result was an instantaneous, basically free (<$1,000 total) major upgrade that stopped vote-splitting.

Because bloc plurality is used basically everywhere in the US, making the slight change to approval voting should face few legal challenges. In St. Louis and Fargo, no state law needed to be changed to allow approval voting. In their states, cities are empowered to run their elections, and that’s what they chose to run. 

Ironically, the old gatekeepers should be supporting approval voting as well. State parties will get candidates who represent the broadest swath of the party, not just the fringes. Media can cover all the candidates, because every candidate is viable regardless of who else is in the race. The new recruiters – activist organizations – should also love it. They can actually recruit and train candidates that won’t end up canceling each other out in the primaries. This is the total reverse of the current trend – with approval voting the more people of color, or women, or moderates, or business owners, etc. it becomes more likely one of them will win.

Finally, it solves the vote-splitting problem in a transparent and accessible way. Your vote(s) go to your candidate(s), and the candidate most people support wins. That’s what democracy should do. Right now distrust in our democratic system is high, and people are understandably scared to make changes. But change is needed, so if it comes it needs to work, simply and cleanly. 

The results of an approval voting election in St. Louis.

Approval voting addresses the problems outlined in this paper in the most realistic ways possible. It’s free, simple and instantaneous when the need is acute and immediate. It doesn’t take years of lobbying, or changes to state law in most cases. It actually helps the old institutions establish some order, the new recruiters get their candidates, while simultaneously empowering the voters. It solves the problem with a tweak, and doesn’t require blowing up and rebuilding our current system. We suggest approval over RCV because RCV can be an expensive, lengthy, painful and dramatic change and still leaves room for vote-splitting. RCV is simply a series of plurality elections, and as we know, those are viable to vote-splitting. We see approval voting as the best way to meet the immediacy and enormity of the problem.

Now some people see a broken system and want to blow it up – approval voting is probably not for you. If you want to make a practical change, now, before things get even more chaotic in these Congressional primaries, you should consider approval voting.

We let facts drive our decisions. That’s why CES chose to advocate for approval voting over RCV after years of study and seeing how it works in the real world. You should consider the facts outlined in that paper, and let that drive your decisions as well.

We believe the U.S. needs Members of Congress, from all parties, from all seats, to come together and work for the American people everyday. We are also realistic. Members of Congress know they are rewarded for their unique views and keeping their primary plurality happy. These members are the product of a system that has taught them to value those things above all others. In approval voting, every voter is a potential vote. Ignore the electorate at your own peril, and don’t depend on vote-splitting to bail you out.

Our system is buckling under the weight of more and more candidates. The question is will we let it fully collapse, or will we work to make the next generation of Congress more representative, open-minded, and focused on the greater good of the country.