In examining the factors that contribute to electoral success in congressional elections, legislative scholars often consider the actions of elected representatives; however, other research suggests that one must consider what challengers are (or are not) doing as well. For instance, inexperience and poor funding can significantly inhibit challenger success. We expand this list of potential shortcomings by arguing that ideological congruence with a constituency may be another factor in explaining challenger defeat. Using ideology measures derived from campaign contributions, we find that unsuccessful challengers in the U.S. House are generally more extreme than those who win, but ideological extremity is not a disadvantage to those seeking to represent an extreme constituency. More importantly, our existing political institutions may actually serve to mitigate the already high levels of partisan polarization in Congress.
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Given the constitutional provision dictating that individual states decide the “times, places, and manner” of elections, congressional primaries can vary considerable in how they are conducted. However, many are run by the Democratic and Republican parties within each state and are open only to registered voters from those parties.
Some research suggests that challengers consciously occupy considerably more extreme positions than the incumbents they must face in order to engage in “expressive politics” (Boatright 2004). Additionally, as Bernhardt and Ingberman (1985) note, challengers are often driven to the extreme flanks in order to distance themselves ideologically from the incumbent. This is related to an argument presented by Banks and Kiewiet (1989) in which it is demonstrated that amateur candidates are likely to compete when incumbents are strongest simply because other competition is minimized. There are also a number of reasons a candidate may challenge a seemingly well-entrenched incumbent. For one, he or she may be trying to foster greater name recognition to improve future chances of success. Also, he or she may have been recruited by party leadership to compete. Less likely, but also possible, is the case in which a state legislator has been term limited out of his or her seat, and competing against an incumbent member of the US House is his or her only opportunity to continue serving as a legislator. Though we recognize these as distinct possibilities, this level of nuance is outside of the current scope of our work.
For a discussion of the conditions under which candidates might diverge in congressional elections, see Aldrich and McGinnis (1989), Bernhardt and Ingberman (1985), Butler (2009), Calvert (1985), Enelow and Hinich (1982), Fiorina (1973), Groseclose (2001), Lee et al. (2004), McCarty and Poole (1998), Poole and Romer (1993) and Wittman (1983).
Although prior research has examined this question in the context of extreme ideological or partisan behavior of incumbents (Canes-Wrone et al. 2002; Carson et al. 2010), we simply do not have much in the way of empirical evidence to support this same conclusion for congressional challengers. We view this as a distinct question from whether challengers decide to diverge relative to the local or district median.
It is indeed possible that factors other than ideology could play a role in where individuals decide to donate. However, with respect to his estimations of these campaign contribution based ideal points, Bonica (2014, p. 374) notes that “ideological giving is pervasive among the most active individual donors” and that “it is very rare for individual donors to be uninfluenced by ideology.” He further directly tests competing explanations of donor behavior and concludes that “[ideology] best accounts for the contribution decisions of the vast majority of donors” (p. 375). He directly tests the possibility that his campaign finance scores are sensitive to strategic donation decisions and concludes that “CF scores are robust to changes in nonideological characteristics with hypothesized accounts of strategic giving” (ibid.). Finally, he concludes by stating that “there is little evidence that these [strategic] factors significantly bias the ideal point estimates. Strategic considerations may cause donors to give more but do not appear to cause them to deviate from their personal preferences when deciding how to allocate their funds” (p. 376).
We utilize the dichotomous measure of challenger quality pioneered by Jacobson (1989) in which candidates who have held an elective office previously are considered “quality” competitors while those that have not held such a position are considered “amateurs.”
Furthermore, we find similar evidence in Senate elections as well—winners are more moderate than losers, incumbents are more moderate than challengers, and extremism has risen over time. However, given other data constraints, we limit our analysis in the following section to House races.
We exclude the most extreme 1% of candidates from our analyses as they represent outliers in the dataset. That exclusion in turn serves to increase the generalizability of our findings. Also, none of those 189 candidates won their bid for a House seat, which also biases against finding a relationship between extremism and electoral success.
We chose zero as the anchoring point for moderation for a number of reasons. Beyond ease of interpretation, the mean and median of the distribution of ideological scores on this measure are 0.038 and 0.044. Additionally, 98.6% of Republican candidates received estimates above zero, while 93.6% of Democratic candidates received estimates below zero. This slight discrepancy makes sense given the presence of Southern Democrats in the earlier years observed. These percentages increase to 98.9 of Republicans above zero and 97.6 for Democrats below zero when observing only elections after 2000, and again to 99% each in the most recent election cycle in our data. We recognize that alternative ways of anchoring are possible, but we are confident that our method accurately captures the relationship we seek to test in the paper.
The district measure is constructed using Bonica’s measure of the average campaign contribution score within districts. That empirical approach differs from the district partisanship variable derived from Kernell (2009), which relies on measuring support for presidential candidates across multiple election cycles. Although some correlation is likely between the two measures, Kernell’s necessarily is more driven by partisanship than ideology, and we believe accounting for both is important for proper model specification.
Previous literature on congressional elections has demonstrated that the relationship between a candidate’s spending and her chances of success could be endogenous (e.g., Gerber 1998; Jacobson 1978, 1990; Jacobson and Carson 2016). However, those works, as well as many others, also have demonstrated that the role of money is an integral component of understanding election outcomes and failing to control for such could artificially inflate the effects of other variables. Therefore, in order to ensure that our results are not driven by this omitted variable bias, we include a measure of spending with the noted caveat that we cannot directly speak to the effect of each additional dollar on the probability of winning.
This measure utilizes multiple presidential election returns and a least squared error model to calculate distributions across districts. This variable provides a superior alternative to relying on a single presidential election while also providing us a with a measure of voter preferences that are exogenous to any congressional elections.
Our measure of ideological distance is the absolute value of the difference between each candidate’s ideal point estimate and the district’s ideal point estimate that he or she seeks to represent. Therefore, a value of zero denotes perfect ideological alignment, with larger values representing lesser congruence between the two, irrespective of extremism.
Few instances actually are observed in which incumbents are 1.5 units away from their districts. No instances of extreme incumbents competing in very moderate districts are in the sample, and only 14 instances exist of very moderate incumbents running in extreme districts. However, this is what we would expect, as it speaks to the strategic nature and political savviness of incumbents. They are likely to retire in the event they fall too far out of line with their district to be viable in an upcoming election. Therefore, although some observations fall outside of the convex hull, they still speak to the fact that ideological congruence is important in understanding electoral success, even for incumbents.
This seemingly counterintuitive result is likely driven by a number of factors. First, it is indeed the case that we are not likely to capture much of the Tea Party “revolution” by looking only at general elections, as we do in this manuscript. Second, we know that 20 Republican House incumbents retired in 2010 alone, many in solidly Republican districts. Those exits would contribute to the lore of Tea Party Republicans, but again would not be captured in any analysis of election outcomes. Finally, as Hall (2015, p. 18) demonstrates, “When an extremist—as measured by primary-election campaign receipt patterns—wins a ‘coin-flip’ election over a more moderate candidate, the party’s general-election vote share decreases on average by approximately 9–13 percentage points, and the probability that the party wins the seat decreases by 35–54 percentage points.” This would mean that extreme candidates are unlikely to succeed in the majority of election cycles.
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Carson, J.L., Williamson, R.D. Candidate ideology and electoral success in congressional elections. Public Choice 176, 175–192 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11127-017-0492-2
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