restricted access 4 Candidates and Congressional Elections
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CHAPTER 4 Candidates and Congressional Elections . . . if a group of planners sat down and tried to design a pair of American national assemblies with the goal of serving members' electoral needs year in and year out, they would be hard pressed to improve on what exists. -David Mayhew, Congress: The Electoral Connection By constitutional design and long practice, congressional elections have allowed the public to vent its feelings about the national government . Every two years, voters can use House and Senate elections as a referendum on the president's performance, the health of the economy , or the general state of the union, and they have availed themselves of this opportunity for much of the nation's history. The referendum pattern has been less pronounced in Senate races because of the chamber's staggered terms, but it has been quite prevalent in House contests. Such trends as the coincidence between presidential and congressional shares of the two-party vote, the phenomenon of midterm loss for the president's party and the connection between party fortunes and various economic indicators have all tended to confirm Lord Bryce's observation of a century ago that "the election of every second Congress . . . enables the people to express their approval or disapproval of [the president's] conduct by sending up another House of Representatives which may support or oppose the policy he has followed" (quoted in Jacobson and Kernell 1981, 60). Contemporary congressional elections, however, no longer fit this simple characterization. In many respects, they now operate according to their own rhythms and rules-an increasingly idiosyncratic mix of individualism, incumbency, and localism that makes many electoral contests both uncompetitive and unresponsive to the public mood. Indeed, the results of congressional elections today are nearly the opposite of what the framers intended, with the House enjoying extraordinary reelection rates and one-party dominance and the Senate experiencing relatively higher turnover and more frequent shifts in party control. 73 74 Candidates, Congress, and the American Democracy In attempting to assess the transformation of congressional elections from national referenda to idiosyncratic events, scholars have examined three closely related phenomena, each of which is closely connected to candidacy: (1) the decline of competition in House elections , (2) the role of political elites in nationalizing congressional campaigns, and (3) the persistence of divided party control of the federal government. The power of incumbency is a common concern in each of these literatures, but what distinguishes them is the relative independence attributed to challengers and voters in determining electoral outcomes. At issue is whether candidates-particularly incumbents-control their own political fates or whether they are constrained by patterns of recruitment and public expectation that are beyond their control. The scholars working in this field subscribe nearly unanimously to the rational actor paradigm of candidacy. Their research agenda therefore focuses on the strategic aspects of individual candidacies and tends to produce explanations of election results that are either incumbent driven or challenger driven. Consequently, contexts and rules are generally ignored, and interactive effects among competing elites are typically overlooked in this literature. A heavy reliance on cross-sectional data and relatively short time-series further limits the scope of the research. Thus, although scholars have endeavored to account for the decoupling of congressional elections from national trends, they have given limited attention to local factors other than incumbency. And although their studies are aimed at explaining longterm patterns in congressional elections, their methods rarely yield dynamic models of electoral change. Such shortcomings are inherent in the rational actor theory of ambition, as I have noted in the previous chapter, but taken together, they create a strikingly ambiguous portrait of candidates in congressional elections. In some of the analyses I review here, candidacy appears as an exogenous influence on electoral outcomes, while in others it is clearly endogenous, and in still others, it seems to be both. Over the long run, resolving these contradictions will require a more comprehensive theory of candidate decision making. In the short run, however, it is necessary to examine the various ways that candidates figure in the literature on congressional elections. The Decline of Competition The decline of competition in congressional elections is manifest in high reelection rates for incumbents, lopsided margins of victory, and Candidates and Congressional Elections 75 increasing numbers of uncontested House races. Although the variance in the outcomes of presidential elections has declined, signifying a relatively uniform sweep of national forces across the country, just the opposite phenomenon has occurred in House...


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Subject Headings

  • Political participation -- United States.
  • Politics, Practical -- United States.
  • Political campaigns -- United States.
  • Political culture -- United States.
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