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Westlye: Senate elections and campaign intensity

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Westlye. 1991. Senate elections and campaign intensity.

Main Argument

Senate elections come in two flavors: hard-fought and low-key. Low-key elections look a lot like House elections; Hard-fought elections look like real elections. So why are hard-fought elections so common in the Senate but so rare in the House? Two reasons: They are more competitive (better challengers) and the incumbency advantage is much weaker.

  • Individual (voter)-level explanations don't help much: Voters use the same criteria when deciding how to vote in both Senate and House elections; the same models work in both cases.
  • District-level explanations do help: There are more "hard fought" Senate campaigns than House campaigns. And that's pretty much the only difference between House and Senate campaigns--and it explains why Senators lose more often.

So the main reason that Senate campaigns have better challengers (and thus more hard-fought campaigns) is that you can't gerrymander Senate districts, and they're more demographically diverse--there's a closer partisan balance (almost every state has elected statewide officials from both parties in the past 25 years). Thus, more high-quality candidates are willing to run, because the incumbent has less advantage. Plus, donors are more willing to invest in Senators, since one Senate vote is worth four House votes.

Empirics

Data

Elections from 1968-1984. Wants to explain variations in campaign intensity.

Measuring Campaign Intensity (ch 2)

Measuring campaign intensity is difficult. "Intensity" refers to the level of information disbursed in a campaign. All of the following have flaws:

  • Margin of victory: True, we would expect higher intensity to result in a closer margin, but the concepts are theoretically distinct. The fact of a moderate correlation does not suggest that the margin is a good proxy. (Westlye gives specific examples of problem cases).
  • Quantity of news coverage: Requires more information than we have (i.e. archives of all news broadcasts), and requires attention to each story's prominence (e.g. on the front page, at the top of the broadcast), not just a raw count of stories. And though we might use a sample of news broadcats, this would still require a huge effort.
  • Quantity of paid advertising: Hard to ascertain, especially in past years. Even if we knew when and where each ad was broadcast, we would need to estimate its reach.
  • Candidate expenditures: A better proxy than the rest. In an intense campaign, we would expect the challenger to spend close to what the incumbent spends. This is necessary to buy advertisements and travel. This must be weighted by state population and inflation. But even with weights, its difficult; Utah and Nebraska have similar populations, but Utah has only one major media market while Nebraska has four, so per capita spending masks this difference. As a backup proxy, though, Westlye calls campaigns "high intensity" if the challenger spent at least half of what the incumbent spent.
  • CQ evaluations: This is what Westlye uses. If CQ called the race intense, then Westlye codes it that way. In the few cases without a clear CQ evaluation, he uses the candidate expenditures rule (which correlates well with the CQ evaluations.