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Jacobson: The politics of Congressional elections

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Jacobson. 2004. The politics of Congressional elections, 6th ed. New York: Pearson.

In Brief

Jacobson presents a comprehensive review and synthesis of the current literature on Congressional elections. He sorts the literature into three levels of analysis: Individual (voter), district (candidate), and aggregate (national). In general, these three literatures address questions along these lines:

  • Individual: Why do people vote the way they do?
  • District: What explains variance across districts and states?
  • Aggregate: What explains changes over time in aggregate representation (e.g. the balance of parties)?

Plan of the Book

Chapter 2 explains the legal and institutional context within which Congressional elections occur. Chapters 3 and 4 examine district-level theories. Chapter 5 examines individual-level theories. Chapter 6 examines aggregate (national-level) theories. Finally, Chapter 7 explores the implications of all these theories for democratic governance.

The Institutional and Legal Context of Congressional Elections (ch 2)

  • The House was capped at 435 in the 1920s. Beginning with the 1930 census, then, decennial reapportionment has meant that some Reps would lose their seats. Before 1930, there were only additions of seats.
  • Gerrymandering happens because the only real limitation on districting is equal population.
  • Primarily due to the rise of primaries (instead of smoke-filled rooms), candidates have grown far more important than parties in the past few decades.
  • Districts and states vary in several important ways: size (land), population, economic base, wealth, communications (number of media markets), ethnicity, age, and political habits.

District-Level Theories

Congressional Candidates (ch 3)

Because candidates are central, they give themselves an incumbency advantage. These allow them to advertise and claim credit:

  • large staff
  • franking (free mail to districts)
  • paid trips to district
  • constituency service

Incumbents' careers follow two main stages (see Fenno):

  • expansion (building up a solid base)--lasts several election cycles
  • protection (maintaining the existing base)--you risk losing touch with your district, though.

Money is increasingly concentrated in weak and open seats.

  • When the incumbent is strong, high-quality candidates don't run and money stays away (Jacobson and Kernell 1983)
  • Incumbents spend the most when the race is competitive (in response to challengers), so spending by incumbents actually has a negative relationship with their probability of winning.
  • Money helps challengers, but it takes $500,000 just to get a 10% chance of winning.

Spending helps challengers but doesn't help incumbents.

  • Why? Since challengers are unknown, money helps them get their message out. But voters already know what the incumbent stands for, so money has less effect for incumbents.

Why do challengers enter when their odds are so low?

  • Perhaps they are naive, overestimating their chances
  • More likely, they know that they would not win their party's primary if the incumbent was weaker (since higher-quality candidates would enter), and fighting a losing general election might be the cost they pay (for now) of winning an open primary.

Congressional Campaigns (ch 4)

  • PACs: Most PACs (labor, corporate PACs) give to incumbents of both parties (to have friends everywhere), but challengers of mainly one party. Issue PACs, though, give mainly to challengers (since they aren't looking for a slice of the pie--they're looking for some moral issue to be changed). Thus, there are two goals PACs might want: Access to incumbents (no matter who they are) or a change in control of Congress.
  • PARTIES are a minor source of money, but still give lots. They can make limited CONTRIBUTIONS directly to campaigns. They can also make limited COORDINATED spending on the candidate's behalf (e.g. purchase polls, ads, airtime). Besides money, parties give training, advice, and assistance.
  • OTHER MEMBERS of Congress use their PACs to fund their colleagues (in order to gain influence).
  • CAMPAIGNING occurs on two levels: media and personal (handshaking).
  • NEGATIVE ads work, but discourage turnout.
  • INCUMBENTS campaign year round--prevention is the best way to stay in office.
  • Campaigns for the SENATE are different: Higher-quality challengers, bigger donations (b/c each seat matters more), better fit between districts (states) and media markets, less opportunity for personal contact. (see Westlye)
  • "Voter education" and advocacy campaigns aren't really regulated, as long as they don't use terms like "vote for such and such."

Individual-level Explanations: Congressional Voters (ch 5)

  • WHO VOTES? The educated (only in US), also the wealthy.
  • SURGE AND DECLINE? Early hypothesis: Independents turnout out more in presidential years than midterm years, thus a party might have a surge in a presidential year, but a decline (return to partisan levels) in midterm years. But see Kernell (1977).
  • PARTY: Best predictor of voting, but DEFECTION still common. Why?
    • More info about incumbents, so defect to incumbent of other party
    • More reasons to like incumbent (e.g. Mayhew 1974), so defect to incumbent of other party
  • Defection more common in Senate races. Why?
    • Senate challengers are better financed and higher quality contenders. Thus, House incumbents have larger advantages over their (unknown, poorly funded) challengers than Senate incumbent do.
  • CAMPAIGN SPENDING (Table 5-8, p 133) boosts House challengers' exposure, but still don't give them close to as much recognition as incumbents already have.
  • VOTING AND INCUMBENCY: Once you control for other things, incumbency alone does little to sway voters; instead, they vote for the candidate that they like more things about--and they know more things (that they can like) about incumbents.
  • ASSESSING INCUMBENTS: Like Mayhew said, voters 'do' respond to advertising (familiarity, contact), credit-claiming (personal and district services), and position taking (agreeing with general and specific policy positions).
  • WINNING CHALLENGERS are well-known and well-liked; they don't win just by trashing the incumbent.

Aggregate Explanations: National Conditions and Congressional Elections (ch 6)

  • X1: Economic conditions; X2: Presidential approval; Y: trends in Congressional control. Why are these related?
    • STRATEGIC CANDIDATES enter races when their chances are better. Thus, you get higher-quality candidates when the incumbent party is facing bad economic conditions or low presidential approval.
  • COATTAILS have real, nontrivial effects (Table 6.4, p 161). Why?
    • Same reason. Better candidates enter when times are good.
    • Also looks at split-ticket voting (i.e. why not coattails sometimes?)
  • REVIEWS of last twenty years' House and Senate races. Main point:
    • A TURNOVER in Congressional control requires both (1) potent issues (economic conditions and presidential approval) and (2) strong challengers.

Effects of Electoral Politics on Congressional Performance (ch 7)

Theme: "How members win and hold office powerfully affects the internal organization of the houses of Congress, the kind of legislation they produce, and the kind of representation Americans therefore receive" (p 219).


  • Policy congruence: Hard to measure, but apparently reasonably good congruence between district opinion and roll call voting.
  • National causes: Some reps become the voice of a national cause (e.g. black rights, pro-life, etc.)
  • Not descriptive representation.


  • Particularized. Policy serves local, not national, needs.
  • Policy favors organized interests, not latent interests.
  • "Responsiveness [to district] without [national] responsibility"


  • You need parties to organize the legislative agenda and keep disparate committees working toward it.
  • In recent years, party leaders have gained increasing power


  • Conservatives are increasingly Republican
  • Driven partly by Southern realignment, but also a national trend.
  • An endogenous relationship:

Voters realigning < --- > Parties offering more polar offerings


  • The idea of term limits is popular, but not likely to do what is hoped. It would probably increase the influence of special interests (esp. during the last term), increase the role of money in politics (since open races are the most expensive to fund), reduce incentives to maintain strong ties with a district (since developing ties takes a long time, and the benefits of doing so are far in the future), etc.


  • The public doesn't like the bickering, backroom deals, etc. In effect, they want democracy without having to witness democracy. As long as Congress remains an institution that makes agreements, then, the public is not likely to enjoy Congress.


  • The parties have become increasingly regional, with Republicans concentrated in the South, plains, and mountain west, Democrats in the northeast and coasts.