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Jacobson and Kernell: Strategy and choice in Congressional elections

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Jacobson and Kernell. 1983. Strategy and choice in Congressional elections.

In Brief

The Puzzle

Scholars had noted that national-level phenomena (macroeconomic conditions, presidential approval) were correlated with seat share turnover in Congress, but they did not observe a correlation between national-level variables and individual voting decisions. They were puzzled.

The Solution

High-quality challengers enter Congressional races when their odds are best. This is determined not only by what is going on in the district, but also by national political tides. Thus, national-level phenomena influence whether high-quality challengers enter, which in turn influences voting within each district.

Main Argument

The factor relating national-level phenomena (macroeconomic performance, presidential approval) to micro-level voting decisions is the strategic behavior of politically active elites: both potential congressional candidates and the individuals that finance them. Their strategic decisions about when to run for office and to whom to donate money structure the options available to voters, thus explaining why macro-level voting patterns are consistent with macroeconomic indicators and presidential approval, while individual voting decisions appear not to be greatly influenced by these factors.

Place in the Literature:

This piece attempts to reconcile the literatures on economic voting from a macro-economic perspective (Kramer 1971, Tufte 1975; i.e. studies showing a correlation between the national economy, presidential popularity, and aggregate trends) and micro-economic perspective (Fiorina 1978, 1979; Kinder and Kiewiet 1979; i.e. studies examining individual-level sociotropic or pocketbook voting), as well as the literature on the incumbency advantage (Mayhew 1974, Ferejohn 1977 and 1986, Cover and Mayhew 1977, Fiorina 1981). The strategic entry and exit discussions are consistent with Cox and Katz (1996, 2002), and Jacobson (1990). Schlesinger (1966) and Black (1972) inform their argument regarding the structure of political career opportunities and the calculations according to which these decisions are made.


Regression analysis, descriptive statistics on time-series data from the NES 1972-1980.

Details: The Argument

Jacobson and Kernell argue that politicians structure their career choices according to their assessment of a variable political environment. The more extreme the electoral climate, the greater divergence there will be in quality of Republican and Democratic candidates (since their electoral fortunes are inversely related) (19-23).

The challenger's calculus

Black (1972): Uo= (PB) * R, where Uo is utility of target office, P the probability of winning election to that office, B the value of that office, and R the risk term. Jacobson and Kernell's argument addresses the P and R terms in depth.

These factors affect when a quality challenger will arise and when that challenger will be well funded (exerting a direct effect on both of these factors, although these factors also exert reciprocal effects). Theoretically, parties could cancel out poor macroeconomic and presidential performance with high-quality challengers; high-quality challengers, however, would rather wait until electoral conditions are more favorable to their party. Here, the decentralized nature of the American party apparatus militates against collectively rational strategic entry (as does the control of national campaign chests by senior incumbents) (Ch. 3).

Factors affecting the P term:

  • Quality of individual candidate (candidates who've held elected office receive higher shares of the vote (31)).
  • Campaign spending (for challengers, the higher the better; for incumbents, uncorrelated, the effect is asymmetric (Ch. 4)
  • Presidential approval rating (higher approval --> higher quality challengers of the president's party, lower quality of opposition challengers)
  • Macroeconomic trends (unemployment, inflation --> Better the economy, greater advantage for president's party --> lower quality challengers)

Factors affecting the R term:

  • Intrinsic and Opportunity cost of leaving current position (Low for an unknown attorney, higher for the State Senate Majority Leader)
  • Cost of campaign (electoral climate influences the perceived costliness of mounting a successful campaign)

Strategic retirement

Jacobson and Kernell find evidence also for strategic retirement: incumbents choose to retire rather than face probable defeat due both to personal scandals or general, national trends (ex. of Leggett, 4th District in California).


In conclusion, Jacobson and Kernell argue that the current (1980) balance between national and individual traits may not be stable: decreases in partisanship may tip the balance further in favor of personal traits, in which case the advantages of incumbency would become more pronounced, and accountability for national trends will be diminished. The strategic nature of candidate behavior, however, would not change fundamentally (Ch. 8).