Crashing the Party? Elites, Outsiders, and Elections

The forthcoming article “Crashing the Party? Elites, Outsiders, and Elections” ( by Peter Buisseret and Richard Van Weelden is summarized by the authors below.

Recent elections in the United States, and elsewhere, have exposed the vulnerability of established parties to Outsider candidates. A defining feature of Outsiders is their ability to enter politics without the support of traditional party elites. Some Outsiders—such as Donald Trump—sought the nomination of an established party. Others, including Ross Perot, and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, bypassed existing parties by pursuing third-party campaigns or creating new parties.

Our paper asks: Under what conditions will voters support Outsiders? What forces shape an Outsider’s decision to enter an election through an established party’s nomination process, rather than as a third-party candidate? And, why might party elites fail to mitigate the Outsider threat?

We explore these questions in a theoretical model of electoral competition between two established parties. A novel ingredient that we introduce is that there are two dimensions of policy conflict. The first issue—for example, redistribution—represents a traditional policy conflict between parties. The second represents a cleavage on which there is conflict within parties. Our running interpretation of this second dimension is “globalism’’ versus “anti-globalism’’ and we focus on the case in which each party’s presumptive nominee occupies a globalist position.

We introduce the threat of an Outsider, who chooses whether to contest a primary election or launch a third-party campaign.  Regardless of her choice of entry, the Outsider runs as an anti-globalist in order to distinguish herself from more experienced and vetted globalist candidates.

If the Outsider enters the primary, the party’s globalist voters prefer the establishment candidate. Nonetheless, if there is sufficient polarization between the parties, the Outsider anticipates that—if she wins the primary contest—she is likely to rally both of the party’s factions in the general election. The reason is that, in periods of high polarization, even those who opposed the Outsider in the primary are likely prefer her to the opposing party’s nominee. The gamble of early defeat may be worthwhile for the chance to lead a united party. Intense inter-party polarization therefore leads the Outsider to run via a primary challenge.

Conversely, when inter-party polarization is low, the Outsider is unlikely to win the support of globalists even from her own party if she wins the nomination. But, if she stays out of the primary, both parties are represented by elite-backed globalists, fracturing the globalist vote across party lines. The Outsider is then more likely to win the election by running as a third-party candidate.  

The Outsider therefore enters the primary if and only if there is sufficiently high polarization.

Finally, while there is a range of actions party elites could take to reduce the likelihood of an Outsider winning the nomination, we show that elites will be reluctant to take them in periods of intense polarization.  Blocking a primary challenge increases the likelihood of a third-party run, which is particularly damaging when the Outsider is likely to take most votes from one side of the traditional ideological spectrum. Hence increased inter-party polarization renders parties especially vulnerable and non-responsive to Outsider challenges. 

About the Author(s): Peter Buisseret is an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. Richard Van Weelden is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh in the Department of Economics. Their research “Crashing the Party? Elites, Outsiders, and Elections” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.