Donors, Primary Elections, and Polarization in the United States

The forthcoming article “Donors, Primary Elections, and Polarization in the United States” ( by Jordan Kujala is summarized by the author(s) below.
AJPS - Kujala
In the United States, the ideological polarization of congressional candidates and members of congress is well known as Democrats and Republicans routinely take policy positions that substantially differ from one another. Recent studies have even found that congressional candidates and elected officials often hold more extreme preferences than their own primary electorate (Bafumi and Herron 2010; Barber 2016; Stone and Simas 2010).  

I argue that these extreme candidates are able to win nomination and office because of the influential role of donors in primary elections. The advantageous role of donors in primaries gives donors the ability to demand policy responsiveness in exchange for the resources necessary to run a successful campaign. While the influence of wealthy donors has often been suggested as a source for the success of extreme candidates, there is little evidence that donors and campaign contributions affect the policy preferences of congressional candidates or the roll-call votes of members of congress. 

To test the influence of donors in primary elections, I analyze 3,600 Democrats and Republicans that won primaries for the House of Representatives between 2002 and 2010. I construct a dataset that contains comparable ideological measures for House nominees, their partisan donor constituencies, and their primary and general electorates. 

Using this dataset, I find the strongest evidence to date that the influence of donors in primary elections substantially affects the district-level polarization of congressional candidatesThese findings suggest Democrats and Republicans that win congressional primaries are more responsive to the policy preferences of the partisan donors in their district than either their primary or general election constituency. As donors take more extreme ideological positions, primary winners take more extreme positions that are further from their district. 

These findings provide evidence that affluent Americans can use their wealth to influence outcomes of the political process. Democratic and Republican House nominees appear to respond inordinately to partisan donors, a group that is disproportionately wealthy and often holds extreme policy views. This unequal response may lead to policy outcomes that favor the wealthy over the middle class and the poor. 


Bafumi, Joseph, and Michael C. Herron. 2010. “Leapfrog Representation and Extremism A Study of American Voters and Their Members in Congress.” American Political Science Review 104(3): 519-42. 

Barber, Michael J. 2016. “Representing the Preferences of Donors, Partisans, and Voters in the US Senate.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80: 225-49. 

Stone, Walter J., and Elizabeth N. Simas. 2010. “Candidate Valence and Ideological Positions in U.S. House Elections.” American Journal of Political Science 54(2): 371-88. 

About the Author: Jordan Kujala is Visiting Assistant Professor at University of California Center Sacramento. The research “Donors, Primary Elections, and Polarization in the United States” ( is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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

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