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2 History of U.S. House Elections During the past five decades, much has been written about congressional elections in the post–World War II era, and the general patterns of election outcomes are clear and well-known by scholars. For instance, contemporary House elections produce relatively little turnover from one election cycle to the next and a dearth of competitive races in any given year. Even in more volatile recent elections such as 1994, 2006, and 2010 when control of the House chamber reverted to the other party, upwards of 90 percent of incumbents retained their seats. Incumbents are thought to accrue a number of advantages over rival candidates stemming from among other things, greater name recognition, enhanced fund-raising abilities, their record of legislative accomplishments, and a lack of strong opposition. As the costs of contemporary congressional campaigns have continued to escalate in recent years, otherwise strong challengers have become more selective about entering races against incumbent candidates , as running and losing could put an end to a promising electoral career (Cox and Katz 2002; Jacobson 1989; Rohde 1979). State legislators , for instance, are often reluctant to run for a House seat since they typically have to give up their current position to wage what most likely will end up being an unsuccessful congressional campaign. With a limited number of strong candidates emerging to challenge sitting legislators except under the most ideal of conditions, incumbents have a much easier time getting reelected, which further enhances the view of members of Congress as entrenched politicians. As demonstrated by students of congressional elections, the risks and potential rewards of waging a competitive elective campaign have increased dramatically 13 14 Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform during the past 50 years.1 Despite the voluminous literature devoted to congressional elections in the post–World War II era, we think there are weaknesses in the literature on historical elections. The lack of a longitudinal perspective of elections means the literature has suffered from an inability to employ the institutional leverage that history offers to comment on a variety of empirical puzzles that cannot be addressed with contemporary data alone. The lack of systematic analyses of district-level results and candidate emergence patterns has led to an over reliance on anecdotal stories of mindless voting for party tickets, corruption, fraud, and other shady practices. Certainly, to some extent, these practices occurred, but we do think the prevalence of these things has been greatly overstated by authors who were advocates of Progressive era reforms, not dispassionate observers. To be sure, we are not the first to note this. In the pages that follow, we lay out the conventional story regarding elections in this era, note the recent contributions of historians and political scientists who have questioned this prevailing view, and set the stage for the theoretical and empirical arguments that fill the remaining pages of this volume. 2.1 The Era of Party Dominance Without a doubt the most striking difference between congressional elections in the nineteenth century and those from the more modern era is the role that political parties played in structuring the ballot, both in terms of the form of the ballot and the names listed under each party banner. More generally, the institutional mechanisms in place during much of the nineteenth century also made it significantly easier for party organizations to exert control over candidate selection and the electoral process in general. For instance, parties were responsible for recruiting candidates and in designing the ballots voters would use to choose candidates. After several decades of near exclusive partisan control over the electoral machinery, this system was eventually supplanted by the adoption of the the Australian ballot in the 1890s and the direct primary in the early part of the twentieth century. 2.1.1 Candidate Recruitment Candidate selection practices in the late nineteenth century were starkly different than they are today. In contrast to the familiar candidate- History of U.S. House Elections 15 centered era of politics widespread today, elections during this era were largely party-centered (Jacobson 1989). Prior to the appearance of the direct primary in the early-to-mid part of the twentieth century, House candidates were chosen almost exclusively by party caucuses (Dallinger 1897; Ostrogorski 1964; Ware 2002). However, Ware (2002) notes that a few states employed party conventions to select candidates to run for local and statewide offices throughout the nineteenth century, but that the party organizations still exercised considerable control over the selection of...


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