Political scientist Rachel Porter earns award for best doctoral dissertation about American government

Author: Beth Staples


Notre Dame political scientist Rachel Porter has won an award for writing the best doctoral dissertation in the field of American government in 2022, for her research pairing original data collection with quantitative text analysis to offer insights into congressional candidate behavior.

She accepted the American Political Science Association’s 2023 E. E. Schattschneider Award for her dissertation “Some Politics Are Still Local: Strategic Position Taking in Congress & Elections” last week at the organization's annual meeting in Los Angeles.

For Porter, whose data-driven research now includes work on the rising success of political amateurs in congressional elections, earning an award named for one of the foremost scholars in political science validated her project’s intellectual merit.

“In some ways, it means even more because of the list of other folks who have won the award — people that I look up to in the field and I think of as my academic idols,” said Porter, an assistant professor who joined the Department of Political Science in fall 2022. “It’s truly an honor and humbling.”

Prior winners include Princeton professor Frances E. Lee and Notre Dame’s David Campbell, the Packey J. Dee Professor of American Democracy, who won the award 20 years ago for his dissertation, “Participation in Context: How Communities and Schools Shape Civic Engagement.”

For her dissertation, Porter analyzed text from more than 5,000 congressional candidates’ campaign websites in 2018 and 2020, and learned that while much of today’s politics is polarized and nationally oriented, theories of strategic candidate behavior also need to reflect locally oriented campaigning.

“So, for instance, I find that candidates are a lot more likely to talk about local issues, district projects, and problems important to the district in two-party competitive districts — where Republicans and Democrats both could win,” she said.

“We don’t have a lot of those anymore because of gerrymandering, so maybe this is another reason where we should think about — whether it’s nationally in Congress, at the state level in state legislatures, or even through the Supreme Court — questioning whether gerrymandering is something that we really need to address if we’re going to get better representation for Americans.”

At the APSA meeting, Porter participated on panels and met with publishers to discuss turning her dissertation into a book that will include 2022 congressional campaign website data that Notre Dame undergraduates cleaned, parsed, and coded this summer.

After turning her attention elsewhere for a time, Porter has found that winning the award has reignited her excitement and passion for the research contained within her dissertation.

“When you spend nearly three years on a project, all you want is for it to go away,” she said with a laugh. “So it went away for a year and I didn’t really look at it. I’m excited to get back to it.”