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Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness

Public Evaluations of Congress and Electoral Consequences

David R. Jones and Monika L. McDermott

Publication Year: 2009

Jones and McDermott's groundbreaking book makes a strong case for the proposition that the popular standing of Congress (not merely that of its individual members) influences voters' decisions. Voters enforce collective responsibility, they contend, and Congress takes notice. This will be an important read for all students of Congress and congressional elections. ---Gary C. Jacobson, Professor of Political Science, University of California, San Diego "Jones and McDermott have set a new standard for empirical analyses of responsiveness and representation in contemporary American politics. They frame the important substantive and normative questions, highlight the problems that have bedeviled previous work, and combine disparate data sets and sophisticated analytic techniques to develop new and important findings about the relationship between citizen preferences, legislator actions, and government policies. It is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding the nature of citizen-representative linkages under real-world conditions." ---William Bianco, Professor of Political Science, Indiana University "This book engages important questions related to congressional elections with new theoretical arguments and new data. It comes to conclusions that are contrary to widely accepted views in the literature, arguing that the public cares politically about the policies produced by Congress, that voters are able to have a reasonable amount of information about what Congress does in this realm, and that voters' perceptions on these matters have important electoral consequences. I think this book will be widely read and cited, and that it will have an impact on the scholarly debates about elections and polarization." ---David W. Rohde, Professor of Political Science, Duke University "Americans, Congress, and Democratic Responsiveness is an interesting book with important and compelling results. Jones and McDermott restore meaning to democratic responsibility by finding that public evaluations affect Congress. In contrast to the popular depiction of the representatives controlling the represented rampant in the political science literature, Jones and McDermott show that the people are in control, determining not only the direction of policy in Congress, but also who stays, who retires, and who faces difficult reelection efforts. This book makes an important correction to our understanding of how Congress operates." ---Sean M. Theriault, Associate Professor, Department of Government, the University of Texas at Austin Voters may not know the details of specific policies, but they have a general sense of how well Congress serves their own interests and how closely politicians pay attention to public approval ratings. David Jones and Monika McDermott show, through new empirical analysis, that both politicians and voters take a hand in reconfiguring the House and Senate when the majority party is unpopular, as was the case during the 2008 elections. Candidates who continue to run under the party banner distance themselves from party ideology, while voters throw hard-line party members out of office. In this way, public approval and democratic responsibility directly affect policy shifts and turnovers at election time. Contrary to the common view of Congress as an insulated institution, Congress is indeed responsive to the people of the United States. David R. Jones is Professor of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York. Monika L. McDermott is Associate Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. Jacket photograph: iStockphoto.com © Slowgogo

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Our biggest debt in this project is to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. It is extraordinarily unlikely we would have started on this line of research absent the 1994 Republican revolution, led by Gingrich, and the Republicans’ policy-rich Contract with America. The Republican takeover of Congress, their subsequent policy actions, and the public’s reactions sparked a conversation between the two ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-17

Prior to the 2006 congressional elections, conventional wisdom in political science suggested that the battle for control of the House would be close. Some academic forecasting models predicted that Republicans would hold on to a narrow majority, others that Democrats would gain enough seats to overtake them. Virtually none, however, predicted that Republicans would lose as many as the thirty seats ...

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2. Responding to Congressional Policy

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pp. 18-33

One of our main arguments in this book is that the public responds to congressional policy behavior when evaluating the performance of Congress. As we discussed in the introduction, this argument is consistent with the thinking of many political commentators and members of Congress themselves, but key elements of the argument may raise some eyebrows in the scholarly community. The first such element is our argument that Americans desire policy representation from Congress.

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3. Failing Pop Quizzes but Passing the Test

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pp. 34-66

We demonstrated in the previous chapter that Americans care about the policy orientation of Congress. What we could not tell from the preceding test, however, is whether citizens operating in the noisy environment of the real world have the ability to receive and process the information necessary to evaluate Congress in line with their personal policy preferences. While it may be relatively straightforward in an experimental survey situation, performing such a task in the confusing ....

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4. Evaluating Congress Ideologically

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pp. 67-96

In the spring of 2007, Americans witnessed a classic game of chicken between the president, George W. Bush, and the newly elected and installed Democratic Congress. In early spring, the president asked Congress to pass a supplemental defense appropriation to continue funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. To the delight of those who saw the Iraq War as immoral and to the consternation of those who viewed it as vital to the War on Terror, Democrats sent the president a ....

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5. Voting the Bums Out

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pp. 97-112

One of the most famous puzzles in the study of Congress is that while a majority of Americans frequently disapprove of Congress as a whole, Americans by and large continue to vote to keep their individual member of Congress in office. According to the time series data we compiled in chapter 4, public approval of Congress’s job performance averaged only 37 percent from 1974 through 2006, but during the same period, an average of two-thirds of Americans cast ballots to reelect their ...

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6. Riding the Electoral Wave

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pp. 113-127

The composition of Congress is determined not only by the decisions of voters but also by potential candidates’ decisions on whether or not to run for office. Smart politicians will be strategic when making this decision. According to Jacobson and Kernell (1983), being strategic in this context involves taking into account how national political conditions prior to an election might affect one’s prospects for success in that election.

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7. Responding to Public Evaluations

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pp. 128-144

Conventional wisdom in political science suggests that Congress is not responsive to public evaluations of its performance, as discussed in chapter 1. This belief is largely based on two related lines of thinking. First, observers note that although Americans tend to disapprove of Congress, congressional incumbents tend to win reelection. In fact, from 1974 through 2006, 96 percent of running incumbents were reelected.

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8. Conclusion

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pp. 145-157

We began this book by arguing that the conventional wisdom in political science regularly underestimates both the American public’s political abilities and the responsiveness of Congress to the public. The contribution we most hope to make is to encourage scholars to take a look at the democratic citizenry and institutions in this country in a new and more positive light. Unlike many studies on American government that conclude the system is broken— ...

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9. The 2008 Congressional Elections: An Afterword

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pp. 159-176

The preceding chapters of this book present our theory and evidence of how the public judges Congress ideologically and how Americans express their resulting frustrations or (much more rarely) satisfaction with Congress’s performance in the form of votes against or for the majority party’s candidates in elections. These chapters were written primarily after the 2006 congressional elections but before the 2008 congressional elections.

Methodological Appendix

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pp. 177-190


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pp. 191-202


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pp. 203-216


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pp. 217-221

E-ISBN-13: 9780472022137
E-ISBN-10: 047202213X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034093
Print-ISBN-10: 047203409X

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 29 Tables, 12 Figures
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: New and expanded edition