Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-56f9d74cfd-fv4mn Total loading time: 0.215 Render date: 2022-06-26T11:36:07.136Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true }

Sidestepping primary reform: political action in response to institutional change

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 October 2020

Seth J. Hill*
Department of Political Science, University of California, 9500 Gilman Drive #0521, La Jolla, CA, San Diego, 92093-0521, USA
Corresponding author.


Many believe primary elections distort representation in American legislatures because unrepresentative actors nominate extremist candidates. Advocates have reformed primaries to broaden voter participation and increase representation. Empirical evidence, however, is quite variable on the effects of reform. I argue that when institutional reform narrows one pathway of political influence, aggrieved actors take political action elsewhere to circumvent reform. I use a difference-in-differences design in the American states and find that although changing primary rules increases primary turnout, campaign contributions also increase with reform. Implementing nonpartisan primaries and reforming partisan primaries lead to estimated 9 and 21 percent increases in individual campaign contributions per cycle. This suggests actors substitute action across avenues of political influence to limit effects of institutional reform.

Original Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the European Political Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Aranson, PH and Ordeshook, PPC (1972) Spatial strategies for sequential elections. In Niemi, RG and Weisberg, HF. (eds). Probability Models of Collective Decision Making. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co, pp. 298331.Google Scholar
Barber, MJ, Canes-Wrone, B and Thrower, S (2017) Ideologically sophisticated donors: which candidates do individual contributors finance. American Journal of Political Science 61, 271288.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Boatright, RG (2013) Getting Primaried: The Changing Politics of Congressional Primary Challenges. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bonica, A (2013) Ideology and interests in the political marketplace. American Journal of Political Science 57, 294311.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bonica, A (2019) Database on Ideology, Money in Politics, and Elections: Public Version 3.0 [Computer file]. Stanford: Stanford University Libraries.Google Scholar
Brady, DW, Han, H and Pope, JC (2007) Primary elections and candidate ideology: out of step with the primary electorate? Legislative Studies Quarterly 32, 79105.Google Scholar
Brown, CW, Hedges, R and Powell, LW (1980) Belief structure in a political elite: contributors to the 1972 presidential candidates. Polity 13, 134146.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Brown, CW, Powell, LW and Wilcox, C (1995) Serious Money: Fundraising and Contributing in Presidential Nomination Campaigns. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bullock, W and Clinton, JD (2011) More a Molehill than a mountain: the effects of the blanket primary on elected officials’ behavior from California. Journal of Politics 73, 915930.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cain, BE (1995) Moralism and Realism in Campaign Finance Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 111140.Google Scholar
Cain, BE (2015) Democracy More or Less. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Cohen, M, Karol, D, Noel, H and Zaller, J (2008) The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Coleman, JS (1972) The positions of political parties in elections. In Niemi, RG and Weisberg, HF (eds), Probability Models of Collective Decision Making. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Co.Google Scholar
Conley, TG and Taber, CR (2011) Inference with ‘difference in differences with a small number of policy changes. Review of Economics and Statistics 93, 113125.Google Scholar
Federal Election Commission (2008–2014) Election results for the U.S. President. The U.S. senate and The U.S. House of Representatives, Washington: Office of Communication.Google Scholar
Francia, PL, Green, JC, Herrnson, PS, Wilcox, C and Powell, LW (2003) The Financiers Of Congressional Elections: Investors, Ideologues, and Intimates. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
Galderisi, PF, Ezra, M and Lyons, M (2001) Congressional Primaries and the Politics of Representation. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
Geras, MJ and Crespin, MH (2018) The effect of open and closed primaries on voter turnout. In Boatright, RG (ed). Routledge Handbook of Primary Elections. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
Gerber, ER and Morton, RB (1998) Primary election systems and representation. Journal of Law, Economics, & Organization 14, 304324.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Gordon, SC and Hafer, C (2005) Flexing muscle: corporate political expenditures as signals to the bureaucracy. American Political Science Review 99, 245261.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, AB (2016) Systemic effects of campaign spending: evidence from corporate contribution bans in US state legislatures. Political Science Research and Methods 4, 343359.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hall, AB and Thompson, DM (2018) Who punishes extremist nominees? Candidate ideology and turning out the base in US elections. American Political Science Review 112, 509524.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hassell, HJG (2015) Party control of party primaries: party influence in nominations for the US senate. Journal of Politics 78, 7587.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, SJ (2015) Institution of nomination and the policy ideology of primary electorates. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 10, 461487.10.1561/100.00015023CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, SJ and Huber, GA (2017) Representativeness and motivations of the contemporary donorate: results from merged survey and administrative records. Political Behavior 39, 329.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, SJ and Kousser, T (2016) Turning out unlikely voters? A field experiment in the top-two primary. Political Behavior 38, 413432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hill, SJ and Tausanovitch, C (2018) Southern realignment, party sorting, and the polarization of American primary electorates, 1958–2012. Public Choice 48, 131141.Google Scholar
Hirano, S, Snyder, JM, Ansolabehere, S and Hansen, JM (2010) Primary elections and partisan polarization in the U.S. congress. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 5, 169191.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Issacharoff, S and Karlan, PS (1999) The hydraulics of campaign finance reform. Texas Law Review 77, 17051738.Google Scholar
Kernell, S (2003) The true principles of republican government. In Kernell, S(ed), James Madison: The Theory and Practice of Republican Government. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
Kousser, T (2015) The top-two, take two: did changing the rules change the game in statewide contests? California Journal of Politics and Policy 7. Scholar
Kousser, T, Phillips, JH and Shor, B (2018) Reform and representation: a new method applied to recent electoral changes. Political Science Research and Methods 6, 809827.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Leighley, JE and Nagler, J (2014) Who Votes Now? Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Madison, J (1787) Federalist No. 10. The Same Subject Continued: The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection. New York Daily Advertiser (22 November 1787).Google Scholar
Magleby, DB, Goodliffe, J and Olsen, JA (2018) Who Donates in Campaigns?: The Importance of Message, Messenger, Medium, and Structure. New York: Cambridge Univesity Press.Google Scholar
Masket, S (2016) The Inevitable Party. New York: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McDonald, MP (2019) 1980–2014 State Turnout Rates. United States Election Project (3 May 2019).Google Scholar
McGhee, E and Shor, B (2017) Has the top two primary elected more moderates? Perspectives on Politics 15, 10531066.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
McGhee, E, Masket, S, Shor, B, Rogers, S and McCarty, N (2014) A primary cause of partisanship? Nomination systems and legislator ideology. American Journal of Political Science 58, 337351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Merriam, CE and Overacker, L (1928) Primary Elections. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Milyo, J (2001) What do candidates maximize (and why should anyone care)? Public Choice 109, 119139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Norrander, B and Wendland, J (2016) Open versus closed primaries and the ideological composition of presidential primary electorates. Electoral Studies 42, 229236.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Olson, M and Rogowski, J (2020) Legislative term limits and polarization. Journal of Politics 82, 572586.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Rogowski, JC and Langella, S (2015) Primary systems and candidate ideology: evidence from federal and state legislative elections. American Politics Research 43, 846871.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Ware, A (2002) The American Direct Primary: Party Institutionalization and Transformation in the North. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Supplementary material: Link
Supplementary material: PDF

Hill supplementary material

Hill supplementary material

Download Hill supplementary material(PDF)
PDF 602 KB

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Sidestepping primary reform: political action in response to institutional change
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Sidestepping primary reform: political action in response to institutional change
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Sidestepping primary reform: political action in response to institutional change
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *