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Mike Cowburn


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

Intraparty Polarization?: Ideological Factionalism in Congressional Primaries (Dissertationsprojekt)

Dissertation in Politik

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

In recent decades, academics have been in broad agreement that elites in Congress have polarized. This has led scholars to argue that due to elite sorting, the parties have become ideologically homogenous, with evidence in roll call voting behavior and party unity in Congress. At the same time there has been renewed interest among voters in the congressional nomination process, with participation increasingly significantly over the past decade. This period also saw increased attention on questions about the ideological identity of each of the major parties, with specific focus on internal ideological division. The current literature on polarization, which suggests that the parties have become more ideologically uniform, is unable to explain either of these recent trends. In understanding parties as homogenous, we fail to understand the diversity of ideological preferences within the parties or the drivers of internal party competition, particularly in the congressional nomination process. This thesis utilizes an original dataset to show that during the period 2006-2018 these contests transformed into factional primaries; ideologically motivated competitions between organized factions. This represents a shift in the reason for intraparty competition, with races previously dominated by valence factors such as competence, prior experience in public office, or ability to win the general election for the party. As the parties have become more distinct, space has opened for intraparty ideological disagreement at an elite level. While intraparty differences were previously regional, party factions have now nationalized meaning this diversity is present within individual congressional districts. Structural changes including new groups entering the parties and participating in the nomination process have made ideology a more prevalent feature, suggesting that factional primaries look likely to be a long-term trend. This has been amplified by changes in electoral incentives for the parties, and tactical behavior on the part of candidates and voters alike.

In addition to demonstrating and explaining changes in the dynamic of congressional primaries, this thesis considers their role regarding elite polarization. Primary electorate polarization theory (PEPT), which claims an ideologically unrepresentative sub-set of the population nominate extreme candidates, is dominant in political science and in popular media discourse on the subject. This theory appears intuitive but is at odds with empirical data showing primary electorates ideologically aligned with parties’ general election voters. In continuing to follow the claims of PEPT, political scientists frequently recommend solutions to polarization which focus on expanding voter participation in the nomination process. This thesis compares the ideological position of candidates nominated via primaries with different electorates, utilizing the natural occurring experiment of congressional primaries which happen simultaneously with higher turnout presidential contests. Due of minimal ideological distance between congressional and presidential primary voters, there is no difference in the ideological position of nominees. This challenges PEPT and counters the idea that expanding primary selectorates will result in the nomination of less extreme candidates for Congress.

Finally, this thesis considers the outcomes of changes in the dynamic of congressional nomination contests in both primary and general elections. Since the mid-20th century there have been debates about the impact of competitive primaries on general elections. The divisive primary hypothesis claims that close contests harm the party in November election. In recent years a body of work has emerged countering this argument, with the idea that a competitive primary can mobilize potential supporters. Both claims however have been focused primarily on data from presidential nominations, which have different structures and receive different attention than congressional equivalents. Additionally, they use competitiveness to determine which primaries are divisive, this thesis reconsiders this problem using the metric of ideological distance between candidates in congressional races. Primaries which feature ideologically distinct candidates receive higher turnout as they draw from a wider ideological pool of partisan voters. In general elections too, candidates who earn the nomination via factional primaries perform better than candidates who earn the nomination either without a primary or in non-factional competitions with factional primaries mobilizing potential party voters.


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