The 2024 presidential primaries were all but decided when the last major challenger to Joe Biden and Donald Trump, Republican Nikki Haley, suspended her campaign on the morning after Super Tuesday. But primary season is just beginning, with 45 state primaries still outstanding (along with presidential primaries in 26 of those states), according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

On “Washington Watch,” Senator Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins underscored that voting is important not only to determine the races between candidates on the ballot, but more broadly for influencing the political strategy, landscape, and confidence that legislators can work with in Washington, D.C. That is, voters should remember that their decision at the polls (or not to visit the polls) will have an impact in the long-term, the medium-term, and the short-term.

Long-Term Impact

Braun expressed no illusions that conservatives could reform Washington easily or overnight. “I come from that arena that thinks this place has got to be fixed drastically,” he said. The problem, he explained, is entrenched interests, such as those among Senate Republicans, who are “so resistant to reforming anything and doing anything along the lines of sustainability, going back where the Founders intended this place to be.”

Rather, he took a long-term, strategic view of institutional change. “Since I came in [to the Senate] in ’18,” Braun calculated, “15 of the last 17 senators lean in that [conservative] direction. Once we get to over 25, comfortably, then in our own conference we can do things with a different direction and then hopefully turn the country [in] the right direction.”

Braun’s calculation reflects simple math. Republicans have controlled 49-53 seats since 2017, and they have controlled 45-55 seats since 1981. (The one exception was the disastrous Congress that sat from 2009-2011, where Republicans controlled a mere 40 seats, allowing Democrats to pass ObamaCare with a filibuster-proof majority.) Thus, Republicans can generally expect to control an average of 50 seats, or half the Senate. However, the Republican Senate conference is itself a coalition with more conservative and more liberal members. To influence the direction of the Senate, conservatives must first control the direction of the Republican conference. And to do that they must first control a majority of that conference. If the Republican conference will average around 50 seats, then conservatives must control more than 25.

Braun’s calculation also reflects the character of the Senate. Namely, the Founders designed the Senate so that it would be difficult to change in a short period. Thus, U.S. senators have longer terms than U.S. representatives, and their elections are staggered so that only one-third can be replaced in any single election. Add to this the advantages of incumbency, the ebb and flow of the political environment, and the added expense of running state-wide campaigns, and opportunities to install solid conservatives in the upper chamber become extremely limited.

Conservative voters are sometimes disappointed that electoral victories don’t immediately bear fruit in policy. But the reality is that it can take multiple election cycles to reshape the composition of a legislature. This is especially true of the Senate, where two terms stretch out to become 12 whole years, meaning that it could take decades to change its direction. So, from a long-term, strategic perspective, conservatives shouldn’t expect change all at once, but they can expect to see change over time, as long as they continue turning out in every election cycle.

Medium-Term Impact

Of course, the effectiveness of votes is usually measured by the much shorter timeframe of a single election cycle. And it’s true that votes matter here as well. “So much rides” on this election, Braun insisted. From the budget, to the open border, to the “sugar-high economy,” he said, this election will impact a wide range of issues important to every American. “The place to start is get out and vote,” he urged. “That’ll at least get the political momentum directly headed where it needs to go.”

“Voting always makes an impact, but especially so in primaries when turnout is typically much lower. For some races, turnout can easily be less than 10%. That means voters who show up are having an outsized impact,” Brent Keilen, vice president of Family Research Council Action, told The Washington Stand.

Family Research Council Action Director Matt Carpenter explained that turnout in primary elections usually affects how parties would conduct themselves in the run up to the general election. “Primary elections are more than just the means by which the major political parties select their nominees up and down the ballot for November,” he told The Washington Stand. “They’re also a useful gauge of general voter enthusiasm heading into what promises to be a contentious and historic general election in November.”

Short-Term Impact

Critical readers may wonder why this piece described the direct result (choosing candidates to fill public office) as a “medium-term” instead of a “short-term” impact. The reason for this is that elections have an impact that arrives even more quickly.

“Washington takes notice of people turning out to vote,” noted Perkins. “While these are just primary elections, it matters because people are watching the trends in Washington, D.C., watching the trends of where American voters are headed.”

Politicians attempt to detect and respond to what political scientists call “mandates,” which “have long held an important place in democratic theory.” A candidate might claim a “mandate” when he promises to implement some policy that differs from his opponent’s policy, and then voters elect him over his opponent, especially if they do so by a large margin. The theory is, if the people are the ultimate boss in a representative form of government, then by electing a certain candidate over others they effectively order or “mandate” that candidate to carry out his campaign promises.

In practice, politicians like to claim a mandate as a way of convincing other politicians to go along with their agenda. Thus, if an election is widely acknowledged to carry a mandate, it can “alter the fundamental gridlock that prevents Congress from adopting major policy changes,” according to political scientists. A recent example was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s landslide reelection victory in 2022, which he used to build on education reforms from his first term and implement a promised overhaul of public education, which recently resulted in the University of Florida cutting its entire DEI department.

Perhaps this theory of politicians receiving “mandates” for policy change from voters seems plausible to you, the reader, or perhaps it doesn’t. But more important than the truth of “mandates” in general or any given “mandate” in particular is whether politicians and opinion-makers to whom they listen believe it to be true — which they generally do.

A self-selecting trait of successful politicians is paying attention to what voters want. Long before the invention of modern political science, in Federalist 57 either Alexander Hamilton or James Madison (writing as “Publius”) compiled five reasons why representatives would listen to their constituents. The third was based on “motives of a more selfish nature.” The representative’s “pride and vanity attach him to a form of government which favors his pretensions and gives him a share in its honors and distinctions,” wrote Publius. “A great proportion of the men deriving their advancement from their influence with the people, would have more to hope from a preservation of the favor [of the people], than from innovations in the government subversive of the authority of the people.”

All this means is that “when voters cast their ballot, politicians take note,” said Carpenter. This can change the behavior of politicians, even before newly elected candidates are sworn into office.

One example evident in this presidential primary campaign is the dissatisfaction among Democratic Muslim voters in Michigan and Minnesota over Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war. “Democratic primary voters in Minnesota sent a strong signal to Biden that they are disappointed in his administration’s handling of the war in Gaza, when 19% of them registered a vote for ‘uncommitted’ Tuesday night,” noted Carpenter. “Michigan Democrats sent a similar signal previously when more than 100,000 of them also registered their protest vote by similarly choosing ‘uncommitted’ in their state primary.”

Carpenter pointed out even this marginal protest vote is having an effect on the Biden administration’s policy decisions. “The protest vote contingent within the Democratic ranks has been noticed here in Washington,” he said, “and now Vice President Kamala Harris is calling for a cease-fire in Gaza to assuage the concerns of Democratic primary voters.”

“The lesson here: Elections lead directly to policy,” Carpenter concluded.

“Government leaders and pundits across the nation closely watch turnout. Even if they don’t live in the state that held the primary or election, they take note of what the voters said,” added Keilen. “The level of turnout is one of their key indicators for how engaged the electorate is, and how much the public cares about the issues the candidates are discussing.”

“[Tuesday]’s results could shift the political landscape of Washington, D.C.,” Perkins agreed. These comments applied immediately to states voting on Super Tuesday, but they generally apply to every election — primary, runoff, and general. “If you live in one of those states, and you’ve not yet voted,” Perkins urged, “you need to go vote.”