No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures

This is a review of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (2009) by Seth E. Masket. University of Michigan Press. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Parties control the public behavior of their office holders by acting as gatekeepers to political office

The debate on the influence of political parties on the political process until recently has been restricted to parties in government.  Scholars have focused their debate primarily on the impact of party on the actions of a legislator in the legislature.

Masket takes this a step further, arguing that local informal party organizations control nominations and through those nominations exert control over the legislative behavior of politicians.  He argues that “parties control the public behavior of their office holders by acting as gatekeepers to political office.”  While agreeing with Aldrich (1995), that parties help organizing the legislature, Masket argues that parties, and in conjunction party nominations, are primarily a mechanism by which concerned citizens hold legislators accountable for their actions.

Testing and Results

To test these arguments, Masket uses roll-call analysis of the California Assembly prior and subsequent to the 1953 decision to mandate party labels on primary ballots, effectively eliminating the ability of legislators to cross-file in both political primaries.  His analysis of roll call votes as well as votes for the Speaker of the Assembly shows that the imposition of these new regulations on primary elections had a marked effect of increasing a the partisan nature of the legislature, as politics became less bipartisan after the change, which Masket argues was not the desire of those within the legislature.

Inside the Smoke-Filled Rooms and Thoughts on the How

In addition to his quantitative analysis of legislator behavior, Masket also details the structure of 5 different local party organizations: Orange County Republicans, South Los Angeles Democrats, East Side LA County Democrats, West LA Democrats, and the local party organizations of Fresno County.  Through interviews, Masket details the ways in which party organizations exercise their influence using things such as donor networks, sample ballot mailings, and the mobilization of activist networks.

Unfortunately, none of these items that come out through interviews are easily testable, and while Masket presents ample evidence of local influence on the nomination process, it is difficult to determine how much influence these organizations have on the outcome of nominations.

Small Qualms

While Masket’s work shows clearly the change in the influence of parties after the change in primary election law, he doesn’t give any solid quantitative evidence as to how exactly those mechanisms work.  Is it the fundraising network?  Is it the power of mobilization?   While the interviewees claimed to have influence in all of these aspects, the heads of a campaign or a campaign organization has an incentive to make their role as significant as possible in order to increase their status as the gatekeeper.  Masket clearly demonstrates to the reader that local party organizations influence nominations, but falls a little short on convincing the reader as to the mechanism through which these organizations control nominations.

Possibly related posts: