The Primary Path for Turning Legislative Effectiveness into Electoral Success

Effective lawmakers are the workhorses of the U.S. Congress, but does this legislative effort translate into electoral success? That is, are members of Congress rewarded at the ballot box for the work that they put into advancing their bills through the lawmaking process?

In today’s polarized political climate, gridlock is pervasive and elected officials are often focused on their social media presence. Such behavior might indicate a lack of accountability. Perhaps voters do not care about whether their Representatives successfully advance their interests in Congress by passing their bills, so long as they share voters’ political party affiliations. In such an environment, is there any electoral payoff to members who work hard to advance their legislative initiatives—perhaps (often) outside of the media spotlight?

We engage with these questions in our recent Journal of Politics article, “The Primary Path for Turning Legislative Effectiveness into Electoral Success,” in which we explore whether effective lawmakers achieve electoral gains.  In particular, we analyze whether the most effective lawmakers are less likely to face experienced challengers and less likely to lose their election.

In establishing the relationships between lawmaking effectiveness and electoral outcomes, we focus our attention on congressional primaries, rather than general elections. In so doing, we explore the decisions of voters in an environment that is largely devoid of the partisan cues that are pervasive in general elections, and which are highly deterministic to vote choice. Primaries also rely on a subset of voters that tend to be relatively more engaged and knowledgeable about politics than those who typically turn out for the general election.  Hence, we are considering those voters who are most likely to know about the work that the incumbent member of Congress is doing, and how successful she is at pushing her bills through the legislative pipeline.  

Moreover, within-party challengers are likely to be aware of the incumbent’s legislative record, which could influence whether they enter a race. Effective lawmakers should be able to draw attention to their accomplishments and raise campaign contributions more easily (thereby making potential challengers hesitant to run).

We draw on a dataset of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives who sought reelection between 1980 and 2016. We merge these data with primary challenger data collected by Porter and Treul (2019) and Thomsen (2021), and with Volden and Wiseman’s (2014) Legislative Effectiveness Scores. The LES is a widely used metric of lawmaking effectiveness, which parsimoniously captures how successful an individual member of the House is at advancing her bills through the legislative process in comparison to every other member of the House across a two-year session of Congress (where each bill is coded for relative substantive significance).

Of course, primary voters (and potential challengers) while often well-informed, are unlikely to know a legislator’s precise LES score. But they might have a general sense of whether their representative is performing well or poorly. Hence, we employ a measure which we denote LES Relative to Expectations. Put simply, we generate a baseline score for every legislator, based on the average performance of similar lawmakers – those with the same party affiliation (majority vs. minority), seniority, and institutional position (as a committee or subcommittee chair). Representatives are then binned into being Below Expectations, Meeting Expectations, or Exceeding Expectations, based on their LES compared to their benchmark.

Using these metrics, we find that incumbents’ legislative prowess provides several benefits at the ballot box. More effective lawmakers face fewer quality challengers (defined as those candidates who held elective office previously, as per Jacobson 1989). Specifically, as an incumbent moves from being “below expectations” to “exceeding expectations,” with regards to lawmaking effectiveness, she faces 1/3 fewer quality challengers in a primary election.  Additionally, we also find that a Representative’s lawmaking effectiveness in the Congress leading up to the election is positively associated with the probability that she wins her primary election. For example, those who “exceed expectations” in lawmaking effectiveness double their odds of winning their primary, in comparison to those who are “below expectations.”

However, we also find that when there is a crowded field of challengers, the electoral benefit of effectiveness is less pronounced. This is likely due to a flood of information about these many challengers’ issues and attributes, detracting attention from the incumbent’s lawmaking effectiveness.

Effective lawmakers therefore experience a trifecta of enhanced security in primary elections, arising from 1) diminishing the number of quality challengers they face, 2) producing a less complex electoral environment in which information about lawmaking effectiveness can more easily reach voters, and 3) winning at a greater rate, even upon controlling for these other benefits.

Being a workhorse in Congress might not pay off with Twitter followers, but our article shows it clearly has benefits at the primary ballot box, as voters reward those who are still making efforts to be effective lawmakers in Congress.

This blog piece is based on the article “The Primary Path for Turning Legislative Effectiveness into Electoral Success” by  Sarah Treul, Danielle Thomsen, Craig Volden, and Alan E. Wiseman, which will be published in July 2022 issue. 

The empirical analysis of this article has been successfully replicated by the JOP. Data and supporting materials necessary to reproduce the numerical results in the article are available in the JOP Dataverse.

About the authors

Sarah Treul is a Bowman and Gordon Gray Term Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She also serves as the faculty director for the Program for Public Discourse. Her research focuses on primary elections, candidate experience, and representation in Congress.

Danielle M. Thomsen (@dmariethomsen) is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on Congress, elections, and gender and politics. She is the author of Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates.

Craig Volden (@craigvolden) is Professor of Public Policy and Politics at the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia. He is the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking (

Alan E. Wiseman is Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University, where he is the Cornelius Vanderbilt Professor of Political Economy; and Professor of Political Science and Law.  He is the Co-Director of the Center for Effective Lawmaking (