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Jacobson: Strategic politicians and the dynamics of House elections, 1946-1986

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Jacobson. 1989. Strategic politicians and the dynamics of House elections, 1946-1986. APSR 83:773-793.

Main Point

Strategic political elites play a pivotal role in translating national conditions into election results and therefore in holding members of Congress collectively accountable for the government's performance. Politicians' strategic career decicions are systematically informed by their perceptions of national political and economic conditions. Thus, "voters need only respond to the choice between candidates and campaigns at the local level to reflect, in their aggregate behavior, national political forces" (p 165).

The major points:

  1. More high-quality candidates run when prospects appear to favor their party ("strategic career decisions"). Strong challengers do not emerge randomly; their emergence varies with the prospects of victory (i.e. national political conditions).
    • A party will benefit more from advantageous national conditions the better its challengers. Likewise, superior challengers will be more successful when national issues can be turned against incumbents.
  2. High-quality candidates win significantly more votes and victories than other candidates in equivalent circumstances.


District-level and aggregate time series data from all 21 postwar House elections, 1946-1986