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Polarization and Presidential Nominations: A Historic Analysis using Party Platforms

Sat, November 9, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Wyndham Philadelphia Hotel, Floor: Lobby Level, Jefferson


While publicly it is often thought that primary elections have led to increased polarization between the political parties, scholars still have not formed a consensus on the topic. In fact, the use of direct primaries at the state and local level dates back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when polarization was declining. Polarization is often measured at the state level, such as through the use of surveys or Nominate scores, and aggregated up to the national level. It is well known, however, that congressmen are as concerned if not more so about servicing their constituencies than they are abiding to the parties at large. Thus, these measures might fail to adequately capture the left-right position of the national parties over time. Using party platforms as a measure of ideological position, I offer a simple method for calculating polarization as the level of incongruence between the national party platforms. Given that the presidential nominees for each party have a strong influence on the adoption of party platforms, I thus look to examine if periods when the use and importance of presidential primaries increased corresponds with increases of incongruence between the parties. I find that from 1972-2016, the period that James Davis calls “The Great Leap Forward,” and when primaries are central to presidential nominations, the national parties are the least congruent. Conversely, from 1917-1945, also known as the “ebbtide period” when primaries held the least influence, the parties are the most congruent.