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Mike Cowburn

photo_cowburn

John-F.-Kennedy-Institut

Politics Department

Doktorand

Adresse
Lansstr. 7-9
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.

Education:

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

Teaching

2021-22       M.A. seminar US Polarization in a Partisan Era

2019            B.A. seminar - Polarization in US Politics

2018 -2019 Teaching Assistant, Political Science, Understanding North Americ

Party Factions and Partisan Polarization in U.S. Congressional Primaries: How Ideological and Factional Primaries Influence Candidate Positions (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

Are primaries to blame for partisan polarization in Congress? Both scholarly and public interest in congressional primaries have boomed in recent years, largely in response to this question. This thesis answers the question by focusing on the influence of the dynamics of primary elections on the position of the general election candidates that emerge from them. In doing so, I document changes in the congressional nomination process, 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 positions in terms of the selective and adaptative effects, empirically testing if primaries induce and reward ideologically extreme position-taking among candidates. Taking a contest-centered approach, this thesis foregrounds the dynamics of and reasons for primary competitions to better understand the implications for inter-party polarization. I find that primary voters do not prefer ideologically extreme candidates, even in contests focused on the relative ideological position of candidates, but that legislative candidates behave as if primary voters reward extremism. This thesis demonstrates how intra-party trends of ideological and factional competition in the congressional nomination process influence inter-party polarization.

The first half of the thesis provides evidence of the increase in ideological and factional congressional primary competition using an original dataset of all contested Democratic and Republican primaries for the U.S. Congress between 2006 and 2020 (n = 3,332). I code candidates’ proximity to factional ideal types to assess the nature of intra-party competition using a combination of established scaling methods, endorsements, affiliations, and campaign positions. Following the 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 increased in line with greater focus on ideological differences, with most races taking place between candidates proximate to competing factions by the end of the period. Understanding parties as networks, I demonstrate that factions now serve as important sub-party coalitions that candidates attempt to engage to earn the nomination. At the start of the period, most primary candidates prioritized valence factors such as competence and experience in public office, by 2020, ideological and factional differences between candidates had become the main reason for nomination contests taking place. I conceive of the growth of ideological and faction primary contests as transformation, first in the Republican then the Democratic Party. Factions, previously regionally aligned, 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 debates have moved into the intra-party sphere. The first half of the thesis concludes with an analysis of how the Tea Party faction moved the Republican Party rightward.

The second half of the thesis applies the concepts of ideological and factional primaries to one of the central questions in the literature on the congressional nomination process: are primary elections a source of partisan polarization in Congress? Primaries are frequently cited as incentivizing extreme position taking, despite mixed empirical evidence underpinning the claim. I test whether ideological and factional primaries had a causal effect on candidate extremism in three ways: First, I evaluate whether nominees from ideological and factional primaries were more extreme than other nominees, and whether comparatively extreme candidates were more often nominated in ideological and factional primaries, understood here as the selective effect of primaries. Second, I test whether factional challenges to incumbents on ideological grounds caused members of Congress to adopt more extreme voting positions in Congress. Finally, I test whether primaries caused candidates to adapt their positions within an election cycle using ideal points of primary candidates during the 2020 election cycle.

These findings have important implications for our understanding of the role of intra-party factions in the candidate selection process and beyond. The thesis provides a deep analysis of competition in modern congressional primaries, including a large-n qualitative assessment of intra-party dynamics in recent primary elections. Importantly, these findings highlight the need for a more nuanced understanding of the role of primary elections than is widely portrayed both in media sources and the discipline of political science. The need for greater comprehension of the consequences of primary competition appears particularly acute given that one of the main ways they affect candidate position is through adaptation, with candidates potentially influenced by narratives of primary electorates as extreme. Throughout the thesis, I consider the implications of findings for voters, parties, candidates, the institution of Congress, and the discipline of political science.

Publications:


Peer-Reviewed Publications

Cowburn, Mike and Michael T. Oswald. 2020. ‘Legislator Adoption of the Fake News Label: Ideological Differences in Republican Representative Use on Twitter’. The Forum 18(3): 389–413. https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2020-2015 

Book Chapters

Cowburn, Mike. Forthcoming. “Experience Narratives and Populist Rhetoric in U.S. House Primaries” in Michael T. Oswald (ed.) The Palgrave Handbook of Populism, Palgrave Macmillan.

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

In Progress

Cowburn, Mike and Rebecca Kerr. “Inclusivity and Centralisation of Candidate Selectorates: Factional Consequences for Centre-Left Parties in Germany, England, and the United States” [Revise & Resubmit]

Cowburn, Mike and Marius Sältzer. “Partisan Communication in Two-Stage Elections: The Effect of Primaries on Intra-Campaign Positional Shifts in Congressional Elections” [Under Review]

Blum, Rachel M. and Mike Cowburn. “How Local Factions Pressure Parties: Activist Groups & Primary Contests in the Tea Party Era” [Under Review]

Knüpfer, Curd B. and Mike Cowburn. “Intra-Party Division and News Media Engagement Among Republican Representatives” [Working Paper]

Commentary & Analysis

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

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


Conference Presentations

 09/2021
117th Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA), Seattle
Paper: “The Effect of Primaries on Intra-Campaign Positions in Congressional Elections”
Paper: “Intra-Party Division and News Media Engagement Among Republican Legislators”
 06/2021
11th Annual Meeting of the European Political Science Association (EPSA)*
Paper: “Primary Roots of Partisan Polarization: The Effects of Primaries on Intra-Campaign Positional Shifts in Congressional Elections”
 06/2021
Annual Conference of the German Association for American Studies (DGfA)*
Paper: “Congressional Primaries in the 21st Century: Participation, Inequality, and Intra-Party Division”
 04/2021
79th Annual Midwest Political Science Association Conference (MPSA)*
Paper: “Partisan Communication in Two-Stage Elections: The Effect of Primaries on Intra-Campaign Positional Shifts in Congressional Elections”
 03/2021

Political Studies Association Annual Conference (PSA)*
Paper: “Inclusivity and Centralisation of Candidate Selectorates: Factional Consequences for Centre-Left Parties in Germany, England, and the United States”

01/2021

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”

11/2020

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

09/2020

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

08/2020

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

07/2020

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

06/2020

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

06/2020

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

04/2020

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”

12/2019

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

11/2019

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”

06/2019

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

06/2019

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”

11/2018

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