At Split Ticket, we have repeatedly proven that candidate-driven effects fundamentally impact election results, but we have not completely addressed a more controversial question: do ideologically-extreme candidates pay electoral penalties? Previous analysis on the correlation between moderation and overperformance suggests that they do. Today’s piece hints at a more profound claim: electability was a bigger problem for Republicans than for Democrats in 2022.
Is Electability Real?
The first question to answer is whether the notion of “electability” was empirically observable in 2022. If so, overperformance last year should be correlated with overperformance in 2020. This was the case between 2018 and 2020 and was the crux for our first ideological piece on the notion of electability. On average, we found that roughly half of a candidate’s 2020 WAR (wins above replacement) carried over into 2022.
The existence of this correlation across three straight cycles suggests that candidate “electability” is real and has a continuous impact. There are certain incumbents who are chronically weak electorally, such as Republican Alex Mooney of West Virginia (whose WAR across the 2018, 2020, and 2022 cycles was D+18, D+11, and D+8). On the other hand, candidates like Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican whose WAR across the same three cycles was R+10 for all three cycles, have candidate-specific electoral strengths that make them much stronger than any generic candidates would be in the same seats.
A plot comparing each incumbent’s 2020 WAR to his or her 2022 WAR. The clear positive correlation, shown by the upward tilt of the ellipses, suggests that 2020 WAR correlates with 2022 WAR, indicating that our WAR metric is good for gauging candidate electability.
The next question for us, of course, is what drives this type of overperformance, and whether it can be linked to ideological stances. To properly assess this, we used two methods. First, we compared overperformance (quantified by WAR) to the ideological lean of members’ congressional votes, as measured by Voteview’s DW-NOMINATE. We then gauged how members of specific Congressional caucuses tended to perform, on average.
In the above chart, positive numbers on the ideology axis are associated with more conservative votes and negative numbers with more liberal ones. Our data shows that there was a significantly stronger correlation between ideology and electability for Republicans in 2022 than there was for Democrats, as shown by the stronger tilt of the confidence ellipses — the closer to the center a Republican incumbent was, the more likely he or she was to overperform.
Our visualization does suggest that ideologically-extreme Republicans paid a greater average penalty in 2022 than their Democratic counterparts. However, vote-based ideological conservatism had a minimal correlation to Democratic overperformance. It was, in fact, slightly negatively correlated with Democratic WAR.
The implications of this are interesting. There is a case to be made that persuadable voters simply found the policy goals of progressive Democrats (Congressional Progressive Caucus) more tolerable than those of right-wing populist Republicans (House Freedom Caucus) last year. But there is one important caveat here: progressives who kept voting against Democratic priorities pushed by President Biden are marked as “conservative” by DW-NOMINATE for voting in line with the Republican opposition.
This skews the assessments for Democrats, because what DW-NOMINATE is arguably really scoring here would be how frequently a Democrat voted with President Biden. For example, members like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush, and Ilhan Omar are scored as conservative Democrats because they voted to oppose key tenets of the Biden agenda, such as the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
It is not accurate to classify any progressive Squad members as conservative, though, because their opposition was primarily directed at legislation which they considered insufficiently progressive. Thus, while DW-NOMINATE gives us a good heuristic for how centrism correlated with overperformance for House Republicans, it doesn’t tell us much about its impact for House Democrats. We pose another question to get around this issue: how did the median members of different ideological groups perform?
The Electoral Strength of House Factions
We examined six House factions: the Problem Solvers Caucus, the Blue Dog Coalition, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the New Democratic Coalition, the Freedom Caucus, the Squad, and the “MAGA Squad” (a subsection of the Freedom Caucus’ most right-wing Republicans). Before we go on, there are a few caveats worth noting regarding our caucus selection process.
First, members of the caucuses listed above are only counted below if they served in the last Congress and had contested reelections in 2022. Second, we excluded the Republican Mainstreet Partnership because it ceased to be a caucus in February 2019. We measured the average strength of more centrist Republicans based on those participating in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
The WAR for each congressional faction; Republican caucuses are colored red, while Democratic caucuses are colored blue. Median was used for every caucus except Squad/MAGA Squad, where the mean was used to account for the small number of members.
Contrary to what intuition may suggest, the median WAR scores for both the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Democratic members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers caucus were quite close together (+0.2 vs +0.5), indicating that ideological differences between the two groups may not have been significant enough to result in any visible divergence in performance in this cycle.
The median New Democratic Caucus member actually underperformed by a bit more (-0.2) than did his or her counterpart in the Congressional Progressive Caucus (+0.2). Our evidence hints at a fascinating takeaway: within a certain ideological range, there was minimal correlation between ideology and performance for House Democrats in 2022.
There are exceptions, though. The Blue Dog Coalition, home to the most centrist House Democrats, had a median WAR of +1.2, making it the strongest Democratic caucus electorally. The ultra-progressive Squad, meanwhile, had a whopping -5.5 WAR underperformance on average, which was the largest of the Democratic factions examined. Not a single Squad incumbent overperformed last November, suggesting that Democrats also paid ideological penalties for extremism at a certain point.
It seems that voters were generally somewhat willing to accept progressive and moderate Democrats alike, but still punished the leftmost extremes of the Democratic caucus, in a continuation of themes observed in 2020. This largely lines up with our findings regarding the 2020 cycle.
Electability was much more closely correlated with centrism on the Republican side of the aisle, however, as shown by our ellipse plot in the previous section. The Republican members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus had a median WAR of +3.2, the best score of any faction in the House. Voters rewarded moderate Republicans who worked to pass bipartisan legislation. Strong incumbents like Brian Fitzpatrick and David Valadao should give House Republicans some hope in their quest to keep the majority in the 2024 cycle.
Unlike their centrist counterparts, the median Freedom Caucus WAR was -0.8, a clear GOP underperformance. The large WAR delta between the Freedom Caucus and the Problem Solvers Republicans (4 points) also suggests a strong correlation between ideology and performance for the House GOP that was not observed for Democrats in 2022, where the largest major caucus delta was only 1.6 points.
It is important to remember that there are different ideological layers within the Freedom Caucus, a reality that was on full display during Kevin McCarthy’s speakership election. Some members like Ken Buck (CO-04), for instance, protested neither the 2020 presidential election nor McCarthy.
When examining the most right-wing element of the Freedom Caucus, however, we see a large -7.3 WAR underperformance among members of the “MAGA Squad” ー the worst of any faction we studied. This conclusion tracks with our previous findings. Trump’s most outspoken defenders in Congress like Lauren Boebert (CO-03), Matt Gaetz (FL-01), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA-14) posted some of the worst WAR underperformances in the whole House.
The WAR delta between the MAGA Squad and the Freedom Caucus, as well as the gap between the Squad and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, offers compelling evidence that beyond a certain point, voters begin to heavily punish ideological extremism. But given that both the MAGA Squad and the Freedom Caucus underperformed their counterpart Democratic caucuses, it seems abundantly clear that Republicans also generally had more of an issue with electability in 2022.
Put simply, it appears that even though Republicans enjoyed a substantial turnout edge in 2022, the voters who did show up were possibly as or more inclined to back congressional Democrats than they were in 2020. The GOP was the party that was out of power, but in a historically unusual twist, they were also the party that was punished harshly on extremism, possibly due to both the lingering influence of Donald Trump and the Dobbs v. Jackson decision that upended the electoral landscape. Had Democratic turnout been even a little higher, Joe Biden would almost certainly have retained a trifecta.
Ex post facto election analysis is fraught with difficulty. At Split Ticket, we have proved that candidate quality plays a critical role in determining election outcomes. Instead of being seen as a subjective concept, electability should be grounded in hard facts. Our research suggests that ideological extremism had a detrimental impact on candidate performance in general, with a much more significant correlation observed among House Republicans.
Editor’s Note: On Jan. 21, 2022, the WAR model received a slight methodological refresh. Although directionally the findings remain virtually identical, the exact numbers have been updated to match the latest results.
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I’m a software engineer and a computer scientist (UC Berkeley class of 2019 BA, class of 2020 MS) who has an interest in machine learning, politics, and electoral data. I’m a partner at Split Ticket, handle our Senate races, and make many kinds of electoral models.
My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying political science and international studies at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, aviation, and fitness.
Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or firstname.lastname@example.org