Why Local Party Leaders Don’t Support Nominating Centrists

By David BroockmanNicholas CarnesMelody Crowder-MeyerChristopher Skovron
British Journal of Political Science (early access)

Would giving party leaders more influence in primary elections in the United States decrease elite polarization? Some scholars have argued that political party leaders tend to support centrist candidates in the hopes of winning general elections. In contrast, the authors argue that many local party leaders — especially Republicans — may not believe that centrists perform better in elections and therefore may not support nominating them. They test this argument using data from an original survey of 1,118 county-level party leaders. In experiments, they find that local party leaders most prefer nominating candidates who are similar to typical co-partisans, not centrists. Moreover, given the choice between a more centrist and more extreme candidate, they strongly prefer extremists: Democrats do so by about two to one and Republicans by 10 to one. Likewise, in open-ended questions, Democratic Party leaders are twice as likely to say they look for extreme candidates relative to centrists; Republican Party leaders are five times as likely. Potentially driving these partisan differences, Republican leaders are especially likely to believe that extremists can win general elections and overestimate the electorate’s conservatism by double digits.