Frequently Asked Questions:
- What’s the general purpose of this website?
- What do you want me to do on here?
- Do you have a liberal or conservative tilt?
- Where do your numbers come from?
- Why do you do your scores based how members of congress are behaving rather than an idealistic score?
- Why are you only counting votes and not campaign promises of each member?
- Has this methodology been done before?
- Are there times where you disagree with your scores on whether or not somebody should be primaried?
- Are you trying to be the Tea Party for progressives?
- Why do congresspeople in non-safe districts sometimes have higher ‘primary scores?’
- Are these scores fair to newer members of congress?
- What about not primarying someone based on seniority in congress?
- Who’s behind this website?
- Doesn’t it bother you that “primary” is a noun that is frequently misused as a verb?
- Why do elected officials who are leaving office still have a Primary Score?
What’s the general purpose of this website?
The purpose of this website is to help ideological progressive activists prioritize targets for primary challenges, and bring some data to bear on intra-party disputes over the value of primary challenges. Campaign professionals and official party leaders tend to have a lower risk tolerance for primary challenges to sitting members of Congress (MOC). Their attitude is that if we have a Democrat currently in the seat, we shouldn’t do anything that could potentially jeopardize a general election victory. Ideological activists tend to have a bigger appetite for primary challenges, and a much higher risk tolerance, regardless of potentially losing a seat to a Republican. We hope to mediate some of these disputes with our algorithm, which compares a MOC’s ideology to their district’s partisan lean. We’ll update these scores each week, and we’ll update our blog with news about primary elections in the targeted districts, information on upcoming score-impacting votes, and general political science fun. We’ll also be rolling out tools for activists to draft candidates in the targeted districts, sign up to volunteer, and donate money to challengers.
Our site is designed to help you do a few different things: (1) The maps and scores will help you compare how progressive a particular MOC is voting versus how s/he could/should be voting; (2) The blog will provide you with additional context on targeted MOCs’ voting records, report and aggregate news about potential primary challenges, and engage with other writers, academics and activists writing about these races and these issues; and (3) The activist toolkit will empower you to help draft high quality, progressive candidates to run against Democratic incumbents with high primary scores.
If you couldn’t tell, this site has an unabashed liberal tilt. As you can see from our maps, only primariable Democrats are highlighted. We didn’t want to go out of our way to help movement conservatives identify Republicans who are less conservative than their states/districts. Though we have assigned scores to all 535 members of congress, regardless of party, so you can still see how each member’s ideological position compares to his/her district’s lean. This was a compromise between the site’s mission as a general political information resource and its function as a progressive activist resource.
Our scores come from a variety of sources. They are a composite of a few different rankings of members of Congress, and we give a heavier weight to Progressive Punch (PP) scores, since we feel they best personify how progressive each member of congress is. We also average in DW-NOMINATE scores and Party-Line votes, but those more measure levels of ideology and partisanship, respectively — but we feel the PP scores do a better job of capturing what is or is not a progressive vote. While we see value in partisanship, as ideological liberals we’re more interested in grading members on their actual issues positions. We also used the Cook Partisan Voting Index (CPVI) and our actual score (PPCI) to determine where members of congress should vote based on their colleagues scores in similar districts, which we call their “Expected Score.” Subtract the “Expected Score” from the actual score, you’ll get a member’s “Progressive Value” — the measure of how beneficial a member is to the progressive movement based on their state/district lean. Finally, based on the Progressive Value, we assign each member a Primary Score from 0-10, with zero meaning “Don’t Primary” and 10 meaning “Must Primary,” giving a little extra slack to those members in R+ districts.
To get a full run-down on the methodology, read here.
As we mentioned in the ‘different variables’ FAQ, we felt this was an imperative part of the website. Rather than stating on our own: “that Democrat is in a D+16, they should be voting progressive about 95% of the time,” and basing our numbers off of something idealistic — we thought it would be more realistic to say, “based on all of their colleagues in similarly-leaning districts, the most common score for a Democrat in this type of district is an 86.3% progressive score,” and start from there. That way, we’re giving MOCs a very fair judgment system in which we’re judging them by their peers — and whether they are more or less progressive than them. Finally, we’ll likely never get most Democrats to vote for the entire progressive wish-list, but this will provide a nice benchmark to judge members’ performance. What can realistically be expected of different members based on district political constraints? Some members of Congress will have to explain why they’re not representing their voters.
While we think there are good arguments that could come down on both sides for this, we decided to solely go with votes to determine each member’s scores. There are some great examples of things that makes a person progressive that they don’t normally get to vote on at a federal level (eg. Marriage Equality), but we felt that it was better to keep the algorithm based on actual votes primarily because candidates can say whatever they want during campaign season, but each vote is when they have to put their money where their mouth is. Keeping these scores focused solely on votes keeps the scores solely focused on members’ actions, rather than members’ promises.
We haven’t seen anything taken to this extent. We’ve seen a couple of amazing blog posts on the topic since coming up with the idea — but no resources that have focused on scoring every member of Congress the way we have, along with updating the scores weekly, so that readers know exactly where a member stands at the current time. We also weighted our scores to give MOCs one progressive score focused on what’s best to base a primary challenge off. And, finally, we wanted to make this one experience where a reader can get lots of information about a congressperson’s voting record, read blog posts about them and their district, and use our tools to help replace the ‘Bad Dems’ and potentially thank the ‘Good Dems’ all in one place.
It certainly could happen — and if it ever does, we’ll use our blog to clarify — but so far we’ve found the scores do a pretty good job of describing members of Congress as we think of them in a non-mathematical sense. However, there are some factors not yet taken into account that we would like to incorporate into our algorithm eventually (e.g. approval ratings, the generic ballot, previous election results, etc.) that we think could make the scores even more accurate than we believe they already are. There are also other important factors that can’t easily be factored into these scores, such as committee positions. We’ll continuously try to improve the algorithm, and in the meantime, we’ll be publishing blog posts about all the districts and members that our algorithm thinks are interesting, where we’ll weigh the evidence for and against a primary challenge. The algorithm merely provides a starting point for thinking about a member’s value. We’re not suggesting this is the final verdict on everyone; the point is to help direct activist attention to the most interesting cases. If you have suggestions to improve our methodology, feel free to email us.
Absolutely not. We partially understand the comparison, though: If you look at what we’re doing at a glance, it seems like we’re giving Democrats a litmus test and threatening to primary anybody in the Democratic party that is not up to snuff from the left. Though the people who think that this is true clearly haven’t read much about our site or objective. Our scores are based on an algorithm that measures how members of congress should be voting based largely on their colleagues in similar districts, then assigning them a ‘primary score’ based on how far above or below they are their expected score. Unlike the Tea Party primaries, this isn’t a personal ideological agenda from us against everybody with a primary score. We wanted to give progressives a very clear sense of how their MOC is voting, along with how you should expect them to vote based on their district’s partisan lean. We also give representatives much more slack on voting in swing and R+ districts with regards to our scores, so the argument could be made that we defend conservative Democrats in conservative districts almost as much as we advocate primaries for conservative Democrats in progressive districts. We agree that the Democratic Party is the party of inclusion; we would just only like to include conservative Democrats where they represent conservative voters.
Our algorithm is set up deliberately to give Democrats in more conservative states or districts far more slack. Each member’s expected progressive voting score gets lower-and-lower the more conservative their district gets. In addition to that, we give these members even more slack based on how conservative the district is, because there usually comes a point (~R+10 territory) where you’re generally happy to have any Democrat in that seat regardless of how they vote because a Republican would certainly be worse. But there might come a point for a few congresspeople in the shaky areas (D+2, D+1, EVEN) where the Democrat in those district leans vote so poorly that our algorithm still pushes their primary scores to the higher, regardless of all the additional slack. In these cases, the algorithm is suggesting that it’s worth the risk to primary these people because of how much better a more progressive candidate could do in that seat — because it’s definitely still possible to retain it based on the voting-actions of their fellow members of congress. However, these risky districts do provide some additional common sense beyond our algorithm. Candidates who challenge these members must be top tier candidates that have certified credentials, could raise lots of money, and could enthuse their progressive base. Finally, as you can tell, each district represented by a Democrat has a “Party Change Risk” score, which warns how likely a Democrat is to lose that seat to a Republican based on its PVI.
We think so, for a couple reasons: First, our scores are updated weekly. While you’re obviously not going to get a very clear picture of a MOC after just a few weeks of being in office, our regularly-updated scores will give a better sense of each representative’s current trajectory — which is the important thing to take note about their voting record early-on. And more specifically, the scores are heavily weighted on the current congress rather than lifetime scores — regardless of whether you’ve been in office for one year or 20 years. So the only difference between new members and veteran members in this sense is that veteran members who voted progressively in previous years are given more slack in our scores if they’re not voting as well in this current congress — whereas, inversely, members that vote progressively in the current congress but have a history of voting more conservative, our scores are a little more tough on. Nobody should make a decision to primary somebody based on a voting record of only a month or two, but by the time those decisions are properly getting made, each member would have cast enough votes to know whether they’re likely to be a friend or foe of the progressive movement.
We are deliberately choosing to weigh votes in the current Congress more heavily than members’ long-term voting records. That may strike some as unfair, but (1) the effect on member scores is negligible, and (2) the purpose of this site is to be a resource for activists. What we think matters most to activists is what politicians have done recently, not what they’ve done over a long career in politics. A member’s long history of support for progressive causes doesn’t particularly matter if they aren’t voting with progressives as much as they could be in the legislative session at hand. We trust that members’ seniority-based defenses of their long-term records will receive plenty of play in the event of competitive primary challenges.
Ryan and Jon! Ryan is a former Democratic campaign-staffer (who wanted to utilize his mathematics degree) and Jon’s a blogger who currently also runs the Pennsylvania liberal blog Keystone Politics. We’re also both PA-born, so don’t be that surprised if we accidentally focus on Pennsylvania often. Primary Colors was self-funded by the two of us and has no affiliation with any PAC, campaign, or organization. And the amazing Dave Garwacke coded and designed the site, so go ask him to make yours.
Interested in blogging about a particular state or district? Email us!
At this point, ‘primary’ is used by political writers as a verb regularly, so for practical purposes, it really is a verb now. We’re reserving the right to say stuff like “primariable” without apology to the grammarians.
Obviously electeds who are retiring, resigning, or running for another office will not be primaried — but we thought it important for people to know where that member stood with regards to representing progressives in their district in case they intend on returning in the future or especially running for another office. It’s also helpful to know where an open primary is likely to move congress to the left if a Democrat wins, because the Democrat leaving that seat had a negative progressive value.
If you have any other questions, please contact us!