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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Strategy And Choice in Congressional Elections

American college professors require their students to read quite a lot, if then you are stupid (or vain) enough to actually take a PhD course on Legislative Politics in the USA, you will be positively overwhelmed with literature. That is why I spend my Labour Day Monday ploughing through Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections by Gary C. Jacobson and Samuel Kernell. The book itself was interesting enough, I just sometimes wish I was reading everything a little slower than I am forced to right now, at the same time I don't want to pretend that I am really complaining, I like the pace, it suits my current mood, and also makes one feel as if one really accomplishes something.

Jacobson and Kernell in their book (even when they call it essay in the introduction, over 100 pages are too much for an essay for me) try to refute the notion that national politics, national sentiments greatly influence congressional elections. Thus, the 1974 landslide victory of Democrats throughout the country was not due to Nixon's - well-deserved - unpopularity or his lack of economic success, nor the 1980 Republican victories to Carter's failures as a president. They claim, that empirical evidence does not support the argument, that national issues (such as Presidential popularity or economic progress) are decisive for either party's electoral success. This simply, because most voters do not vote based on national issues, but rather decide on local or regional factors such as name-recognition of the candidate.

Their argument then is, that the correlation between national issues and these local results is due to elite decisions made on both sides of the political spectrum. If a party will conceive its chances in elections to be low due to its implication as the President's party or a less than stellar economic record, less high-profile candidates (meaning mostly office experience) will run with less financial background (because of party and private resources concentrating on candidates with higher chances of winning) in open elections (meaning no incumbent has to be beat). Instead the money will concentrate on incumbents whose chances of staying in office are higher already and thus actually heightened (if only marginally because of a sinking rate of return on campaign money). On the other side of the spectrum, the party that has favorable ratings in spring of an election year, will have more high-profile candidates with more financial resources simply because of the perceived higher chances of success.

Thus, two main elements determine the results of congressional elections. Firstly, quality candidates need to be willing to put themselves up for elections which they will not do in a climate which disfavors their party. Secondly, private sources will be less willing to finance campaigns of politicians whose chance of winning they consider to be nil. It is thus not the national issue that is the decisive factor in elections, it is not the general public sentiment, but more so the elite perception of that sentiment about six months before those elections.

This is a very, very dense summary of a relatively complicated book (and argument (it is actually not that complicated but summing it up in three paragraphs is), so if I fail at explaining the reasoning please ask me and I will try to clear up any misunderstanding. Oh yeah, do I recommend this book for pleasurable reading? Only if you have nothing better to do in your life or are a complete nutcase for legislative politics. I found it interesting as an idea, as a concept, but not interesting enough to reread it at the beach or with more time next weekend.

Finally, what bothers me about the argument is that the question arises why politicians believe that their chances sink with national party politics failing, when Jacobson and Kernell show they don't. Surely there must be some relation of national policy to local voting behaviour.

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