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4 Exploring Historic and Modern Election Trends One of the biggest challenges to testing modern theories in any historical context is the difficulty of finding the necessary data to systematically evaluate the theories of interest. Until fairly recently, such historical tests were impractical due to a lack of readily available data, the labor-intensive nature of the data collection process, and the resources required to undertake such an endeavor. Recent developments in electronic archiving and historical research, however, have made it possible for us to gather the data necessary to examine the issues and questions pertaining to changes in electoral competitiveness over time. As such, we can now begin to examine more systematically factors contributing to the decline in competitiveness in U.S. House races over time, the impact and emergence of strategic politicians in light of electoral reforms, and the growth in the incumbency advantage for sitting House members. We have chosen to examine elections to the U.S. House of Representatives held in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to systematically test our central research questions.1 This, in effect, allows us to determine whether the quality of candidates directly affected election results and predict when, and under what conditions, experienced candidates are likely to run for office. Data on district-level congressional results and candidate identification information have recently become available for this period with the publishing of United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: The Official Results, by far the most comprehensive source for electoral data since the founding of our nation (Dubin 1998). From this, one can code relevant information on the names of the incumbent and related challengers, the vote totals 56 Exploring Historic and Modern Election Trends 57 on which percentages of the two-party vote were computed, as well as partisan affiliation for each congressional candidate. These latter data can be supplemented with information contained in Martis (1989) to fill gaps in partisan affiliation for House candidates. To illustrate the changes in candidate and party success in the House over time, Figure 4.1 displays the percent of Democrats, Republicans, and third party members serving in Congress from 1873 to 2009. One pattern immediately evident from the figure is that the percentage of third party members during this era was exceptionally small. There is no single Congress in this period where the proportion of third party legislators exceeds 8 percent. After the turn of the twentieth century, the percentage of third party members declines even further, averaging only about 1 percent through the early 2000s. Prior to the turn of the twentieth century, we also observe considerable electoral volatility, where neither major political party had a distinct, sustained advantage in majority status due to the greater upheaval from one election to the next. Over time, however, this pattern gradually begins to change as extended periods of one-party majority control become more frequent in the House. Except for a few congresses during the 1910s, for instance, the Republicans controlled a majority of seats in the U.S. House from the 54th to the 72nd Congresses. After the 1930 midterm elections shifted the electoral fortunes of the Republicans due to the growing economic depression, the Democrats became the new majority party in Congress and retained control of the House for nearly the next 60 years. At the same time, the variation in the percentage of seats controlled by either party was significantly reduced in the post–World War II period. Once we had coded the election returns for all congressional candidates during this era, we were able to turn our attention to documenting several noteworthy patterns and trends in the data, especially those pertaining to changes in incumbency reelection and strategic candidate emergence. Figure 4.2 examines one such pattern by focusing on the proportion of incumbents that were reelected from 1872–2008. This figure clearly shows that the incumbent reelection rate for House members has steadily increased over the full range of elections that we analyze. This pattern is especially interesting for two reasons. First, the average reelection rate for incumbents from 1872–1944 is 84 percent , a figure that is much higher than we might expect given the general electoral volatility in this era. In fact, in election years such as 1900, 1904, 1908, 1916, and 1944, the reelection rates of incumbents approached or were slightly higher than 90 percent, a pattern much 58 Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform Figure 4.1: Percent of Members by Party Affiliation, 1873–2009 0...


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