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Mike Cowburn

PhD Candidate

Lansstraße 5-9
14195 Berlin

Mike Cowburn is a PhD candidate in political science at the Graduate School of North American Studies of the Freie Universität Berlin. His research interests include Congress, political parties, elections, intra-party factions, polarization and candidate nomination systems. His PhD project examines congressional primary competitions in the 21st century, considering their role in nominating experienced candidates and whether these contests have exacerbated trends of partisan polarization in Congress.


2017-2019 MA North American Studies
John-F-Kennedy Institute for North American Studies, Freie Universität Berlin – 1.0

Master Thesis: Mediators of Faction: Ideological Competition in Congressional Primaries

2005-2008 BA Politics
University of Exeter – 2:1 Hons


2019 BA Seminar – Polarization in US Politics
2018-2019  Teaching Assistant, Political Science, Understanding North America

Are Primaries to Blame? How Intra-Party Competition Affects Candidate Quality & Partisan Polarization in Congress (dissertation project)

Dissertation in Political Science

Mentoring team:
First supervisor: Prof. Dr. Christian Lammert
Second supervisor: Prof. Dr. Sean M. Theriault
Third supervisor: Prof. Dr. Max Steinhardt

Interest in congressional primaries among academic and media sources has boomed in recent years, in large part due to arguments that they are a source of polarization in Congress. The thesis demonstrates changes in the dynamics of intra-party contests, offering evidence that between 2006 and 2020 congressional primaries became dominated by ideological differences between candidates proximate to competing factions, first in the Republican and then in the Democratic Party. I consider causes of this development and implications in terms of candidate quality and the selective and adaptive polarizing effects, asking if primaries now reward inexperienced and ideologically extreme candidates. Taking a contest-centered approach, the thesis foregrounds the dynamic of primary competition to better understand the causes and implications of recent trends in the congressional nomination process and considers the efficacy of suggested reforms to alleviate supposed effects.

The thesis analyzes changes in the dynamics of congressional primaries in terms of factionalism and ideology using an original dataset (n = 3,323) of all contested primaries between 2006 and 2020. I code candidates’ ideological proximity to factional ideal types to assess the nature of intra-party competition using a combination of established scaling methods (DW-NOMINATE and CFscores), endorsements, affiliations, and campaign positions. In line with existing literature, I also code reasons for contests, using candidate statements about their reasons for running for office. During the period of study, numbers of contested primaries have increased in line with greater focus on ideological differences, with most races now taking place between candidates proximate to competing intra-party factions. In line with current literature on parties as networks, I show that these sub-party units now serve as important networks that candidates attempt to mobilize to earn the nomination. In 2006, most primaries were motivated by valence factors such as competence and experience in public office, by 2020, ideological differences between candidates had become the main reason for nomination contests taking place. Transformation took place first in the Republican then the Democratic Party, though important differences between the parties exist. Factions have nationalized, resulting in ideological intra-party diversity within congressional districts. Furthermore, as inter-party general elections have become dominated by partisanship and affect, policy discussions have moved into the intra-party sphere.

Greater numbers of contested primaries and the reduced salience of valence factors in primary elections has correlated in fewer nominees having prior experience in elected office, who, in the terms set out by existing literature, can be considered ‘quality’ candidates. The presence of a primary may be beneficial to a comparatively inexperienced candidate, who may be able to earn the nomination via a direct pitch to partisan supporters. Lower levels of primary competition in the recent past meant party officials could directly nominate candidates with relevant experience. Second, the nature of primary competition further benefits inexperience candidates. When primaries were dominated by valence factors such as prior experience in office, quality candidates were more frequently nominated. In primaries focused on ideological difference and issue positions, prior experience is less salient, meaning fewer quality candidates are nominated.

Changes in the dynamics of primary competition may have important consequences for polarization. Congressional primaries are frequently cited as a source of polarization in Congress, despite limited empirical evidence underpinning the claim. I test this claim in two ways; first, I evaluate whether nominees from (ideological) primaries were more extreme than other nominees, and whether comparatively more extreme candidates were more frequently nominated in (ideological) primaries, understood here as the selective effect of primaries. Second, I test whether primaries caused candidates to take more extreme positions during their primary contests, as expected under the strategic positioning dilemma, considered as the adaptive effect. To analyze the adaptive effect, I use a unique scaling method to compute ideal points of primary candidates across the 2020 election cycle. In the final chapter, I consider whether the often-suggested reform to reduce polarization—increasing turnout to make selectorates more closely resemble the electorate in ideological terms—is borne out in my data, testing the relationship between primary turnout and nominee position. Throughout the thesis, I provide explanations of findings and consider their implications for voters, political parties, candidates, and the institution of Congress.


Peer-Reviewed Publications

Cowburn, Mike and Michael Oswald. (Forthcoming). “Legislator Adoption of the Fake News Label: Ideological Differences in Republican Representative Use on Twitter,” The Forum

Book Chapters

Cowburn, Mike. (2020). “The Transformation of the Congressional Primary” in Mobilization, Representation and Responsiveness in The American Democracy. Michael T. Oswald (ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Other Publications

Cowburn, Mike. 2020. “Not Just the Presidency: Congressional Primaries 2020.” Atlantische Akademie

Cowburn, Mike. 2020. “Fostering Engagement in Primaries and Caucuses.” PolticalScienceNow

Conference Presentations


49th Annual Conference of the American Politics Group of the UK Political Studies Association*
Paper: “Legislator Adoption of the Fake News Label: Ideological Differences in Republican Representative Use on Twitter”


Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section of the German Association for American Studies*
Paper: “Republican Legislator Adoption of the Fake News Label”


Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association*
Paper: “Ideological Difference & Party Destabilization in Congressional Primary Contests”


European Consortium for Political Research General Conference*
Paper: “Intra-Party Ideological Disagreement in Congressional Nomination Processes”


Early Career Network Annual Conference of the Political Studies Association*
Paper: “The Rise of Ideology in U.S. Congressional Primaries”


Annual Conference of the European Political Science Association*
Paper: “Ideological Competition in U.S. Congressional Primaries”


Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies~
Paper: “Polarizing Primaries? Income Inequality & Congressional Candidate Selection”


78thAnnual Midwest Political Science Association Conference~
Paper: “From Personal to Ideological: The Transformation of the Congressional Primary”
Paper: “The Evolution of the Fake News Label: Ideology & Time in Congress as Determinants of Republican Representative Use on Twitter”


British Association for American Studies Postgraduate Conference, British Library
Paper: “Communication in Congressional Primaries: The Rise of Ideology in Intra-Party Contests”


Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section of the German Association for American Studies, Heidelberg University
Paper: “Democratic Re-Engagement? The Ideological Foundations of Growing Primary Participation”


Threatened Democracies: Interdisciplinary Conference in North American Studies, University of Göttingen
Paper: “Fractured Parties and Factional Nominations”


Intra-Party Politics in Times of Crisis: Party Congress Research Group Annual Meeting, University of Strathclyde
Paper: “Intra-Party Factionalism and Ideological Competition in US Congressional Primaries”


Annual Meeting of the Political Science Section of the German Association for American Studies, Passau University
Paper: “Mediators of Faction: The Transformation of the Congressional Primary”

* virtual conference due to COVID-19, proposal accepted, conference paper written and shared with participants, presentation delivered virtually.

~ conference cancelled due to COVID-19, proposal accepted, conference paper written and shared with panelists

Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft