Social Movements and Elections: An Examination of Select 21st Century Movements

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In two-party, majoritarian systems like the United States, partisan voters are between a proverbial “rock and a hard place” when they find themselves dissatisfied with the “handling” of an issue, and by extension, find themselves dissatisfied with their own party. How then, can partisan voters signal dissatisfaction with their party, particularly considering the nationalized state of US politics? One possible answer lies with social movements. Social movements are collectivities, typically of substantial size, that engage in sustained conventional and non-conventional activity against elites and elite institutions to effect shared goals for change, usually in policy or society broadly (Opp 2009; Tarrow 1998; Klandermans 1997; Katz 1971). Social movements afford dissatisfied individuals a means of collectivizing to express their grievances, and, with some small probability, an opportunity to obtain substantive change. Thus, social movements, through their varied modes of action, are a means of exerting pressure on elite political actors to address issues that are not being adequately handled or are being handled in a manner that does satisfy a critical mass of the public (Rohlinger & Gentile 2017; Smelser 1962). Movements will sometimes utilize sanctioning repertoires such as electoral mobilization, most clearly observable through the primarying of members of the party that should be or is perceived to be aligned with their interests. To explore this relationship between movement-candidate emergence and voter support for social movements, I focus on the Tea Party during the 2010 midterm election. The legislative landscape of the House of Representatives experienced a massive shift in 2010; 63 seats changed hands from the Democrat to Republican party. In a time where the public was displeased with the state of the nation, the grassroots Tea Party movement caught fire. The Tea Party supported a conservative social agenda and economic policies focused on cutting programs. As the movement gained national attention, many political hopefuls began to associate themselves with the Tea Party. Is this an example of a movement succeeding in the difficult-to-penetrate American electoral system? Despite the very visible splash made by the Tea Party, I argue that Tea Party affiliation provided challengers no greater probability of defeating the incumbent in general or Republican primary elections, and instead seek to demonstrate that prior political experience is the trait critical to electoral success. The long-standing literature on incumbency advantage and their relationship to quality challengers would suggest that the institutional barriers are simply too high for a social movement to surmount, particularly in this instance where movement-candidates couched themselves within the Republican party and thus lacked any Tea Party identifying information on the ballot. In examining an original, comprehensive dataset, I look first to the general election, where I find support for my expectations. In the primary, my findings are more mixed; I find that Tea Party candidates – but only those who are also quality candidates – are able to significantly reduce incumbent vote share, but not enough to affect the overall probability of reelection. Given that this most visible recent movement was unable to significantly alter outcomes in the electoral sphere, the next “insurgent group” I investigate is women. The 2018 midterm elections were lauded as the “year of the woman”. While no single social movement emerges to rally female candidates to the ballot (though the presence of Women’s March organizations remain throughout this period), we observe an outsized increase in the number of women candidates, with many individual women citing the political climate and the policy choices of then-president Donald Trump as the catalyst for their run. The midterms of 2018 also offer another example of a moment in time where the public was deeply dissatisfied with the state of American political affairs and a sizable number of citizens decided to do something about it. With my coauthors, we assess how women candidates fared in 2018 using the literature of supply- and demand-effects to investigate the extent to which these women were successful in using their grievances to attain office. We find that women candidates approached supply-side parity, and that the factors predicting the emergence of such candidates were consistent with those in the literature. However, we find that this healthy supply of candidates did not translate into winning elections at rates we would expect, suggesting demand-side explanations for candidate underrepresentation greatly affected the 2018 elections, particularly among Republicans. We close with a discussion of the implications of our findings for the study of female candidates in congressional elections. Finally, in an effort to extrapolate from these findings, I draw on theories of both social identity and social movements to develop a theory of social movement identity and outline expectations about the relationship between the strength of politically salient identities and electoral participation. Using two original surveys and an adaptation of the Huddy et al. (2015) identity instrument, I demonstrate the reliability and internal consistency of the instrument, find clear support for the existence of a social movement identity, and evidence for a relationship between identity strength and political participation. With this project, I’ve taken the first steps in exploring the demand for social movement candidates amongst a sample of the American public.





Mehling Ice, Katelyn (2022). Social Movements and Elections: An Examination of Select 21st Century Movements. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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