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Fiorina: The case of the vanishing marginals

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Fiorina. 1977. The case of the vanishing marginals: The bureaucracy did it. APSR 71:177-81.


  • Y: The incumbency advantage (which has grown)
  • X: The federal government's expanded role, creating a greater opportunity to win support with (nonpartisan) casework

Place in Literature

Fiorina is not the first to attempt to resolve Mayhew's puzzle.

  • Tufte argues that redistricting has made marginal districts less common, but this seems to contradict Mayhew's original evidence.
  • Mayhew relies on Stokes and Miller's argument that "to be known at all is to be known favorably" and argues that the incumbency advantage has grown as MCs have learned to "use the frank, use the frank, use the frank."
  • Ferejohn argued that increased party polarization combined with changes in the electorate to render party ID a less useful voting shortcut; as such, voters rely on incumbency as a shortcut. But this seems strange in light of Miller's evidence that citizens are increasingly distrustful of government.

The Argument

As Mayhew (1974) pointed out, marginal districts are in decline, i.e. the incumbency advantage has grown. Fiorina attributes this change to the federal government's increased role. In brief:

  1. The federal government has become much more involved in our daily lives;
  2. It administers these new policies through an expanded bureaucracy;
  3. Bureaucracies sometimes make mistakes;
  4. Attempts to resolve these mistakes often meet inflexibility and unresponsiveness;
  5. So constituents turn to their representatives in Congress for help.
  6. For members of Congress (MCs), casework is "mostly profit: one makes many more friends than enemies."
  7. Thus, casework might be sufficient to help the MC win the votes of a few people who might otherwise have opposed them on policy or partisan grounds. And if casework explains as little as 5% of the vote, then it explains the entire incumbency advantage identified by Mayhew.

Further Implications

The drop in marginal districts was rapid. Fenno's (1977) argument may explain why. MCs tend to adopt a "home style" early in their careers and stick with it. The old MCs may not have adjusted their homestyle to reflect the new opportunities for casework. But the huge turnovers in the 1960s brought in many new MCs, who may have begun with a more service-oriented style--which then explains the rapid drop in marginals in the 1970s.