Our new book is titled Divided We Stand: The 2020 Elections and American Politics. Among other things, it discusses state and congressional elections.
New data finds that the nation's most polarizing politicians are often the ones that garner the most attention online.
Why it matters: Online engagement helps politicians build a bigger national profile and more fundraising power, incentivizing them be more outrageous, more polarizing and more divisive.
By the numbers: Topping the list are lightning rods from each party — politicians who fire up their base while providing ammunition for the other party — according to exclusive data from NewsWhip.
- Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generate the most social media interactions per article, an indicator of how much the internet lights up in response to their name.
Between the lines: The politicians who drive the highest average interactions are often more talked-about by their critics than their fans.
The big picture: The data supports a broader trend of American politics becoming a breeding ground for more extreme politicians to run — and sometimes win — elections.
- Nine of the 10 stories about Ocasio-Cortez from the last year were from right-wing outlets. Just two of the top stories about Rep. Taylor Greene were from such outlets, per NewsWhip data.
The phenomenon of more inexperienced candidates running for office is something political scientists Sarah Treul and Rachel Porter of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have worked to document.1 Focusing on primaries for House seats where no incumbent ran from 1980 to 2020,2 Treul and Porter found a substantial uptick in the number of inexperienced candidates beating out experienced candidates, especially in the past three election cycles, as the chart below shows. And while some of these inexperienced candidates have (nonelected) backgrounds in politics or government, most don’t.
At first, Treul and Porter thought this trend was confined to Republicans, given that inexperienced contenders won more than 50 percent of Republican primaries in open-seat races in 2016. But in 2018, Democrats also showed a strong appetite for political amateurs, with around half of the party’s primary winners in open seats having never held office before. This trend continued for both parties in 2020, too.
“We started to see these patterns in the more recent congressional elections where the candidates without prior experience were performing better,” said Treul. “And we started to think that these old theories the [political science] discipline had might not be holding up anymore.” Rather, changes driven by campaign fundraising, voter attitudes, political rhetoric and weak political parties seem to have diminished the advantages that experienced candidates have long had, such as campaign expertise, high local name recognition and already-established donor networks.
For starters, inexperienced contenders just don’t face the same barriers they once did in attracting financial support from interest groups and donors. Traditionally, it’s been a challenge for newcomers to attract donations from political action committees, which are often key to congressional candidates raising enough money to win their elections. But Treul and Porter found that ideological PACs — typically interest groups focused on a narrow range of issues or just one — have given more to inexperienced candidates in recent years.
Moreover, Porter found in her research with co-author Tyler Steelman (also of UNC-Chapel Hill) that the more money an inexperienced candidate raises from outside their district early in their campaign, the more campaign cash they tend to raise overall. They’re also more likely to win their primary. In the social media age, it’s just become much easier for candidates with no elected experience to connect with a broad group of small donors who are receptive to their candidacies. In fact, as I wrote last year, an amateur candidate can raise millions with the right viral video, even in hopeless contests.