Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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July 24, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

INCUMBENTS....When I was taking political science classes in the late 70s, the reelection rate for incumbents in the House of Representatives was upwards of 90%. This was seen as a worrying thing. Flash forward to today and most people would be delighted if the incumbent reelection rate were that low. In recent elections it's hovered around 98%. There are several reasons for this:

  • Gerrymandering has always been with us, but it's become easier and more precise in recent years. In the past, only a political genius could perform genuinely high-quality gerrymandering. Today it's available to anyone with a PC and the right software.

  • Conservatives and liberals have been showing an increasing tendency to self-segregate. That is, liberals tend to move to liberal places and conservatives tend to move to conservative places. This has an obvious self-gerrymandering effect, but also has the less obvious effect of making people more partisan. When you spend time only with people you agree with, your views tend to become more extreme. This is good for incumbents since extreme voters are less likely to defect to the opposition.

  • In a weird sort of vicious circle, Congress passes deliberately complex laws and then spends vast amounts of money on constituent services to help voters who are having trouble with federal bureaucracy. Because of this, constituent service has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and the beneficiaries of this service tend to vote for the people who helped them regardless of party affiliation or ideology.

  • Money is far more concentrated. Incumbents outspend challengers by a ratio of 5:1 or more these days, and this has become increasingly important as campaigns have become increasingly dependent on media buys.

  • Contrary to popular wisdom, there are fewer true independents now than in the past.

What brings this up? A new article, "The Redistricting Myth," published in the Democratic Strategist by Jonathan Krasno. He makes the salutary point that gerrymandering is not really the main reason that incuments are so safe today, arguing instead that "the best explanation is deceivingly simple: lack of effort." Krasno points out that in the 2004 presidential race there were plenty of swing districts (those won by less than 10 percentage points), and suggests that these seats could all be up for grabs if the Democratic Party were willing to fund serious challenges in them instead of concentrating the bulk of its money in a mere dozen races.

Do I believe this? Only partly. There are two big problems with Krasno's theory. First, there are several trends that have converged to make incumbents so safe today, and money is only one of them. Second, money isn't concentrated just for the hell of it. There's a limited amount to go around, and there's a pretty good case to be made that modest funding in lots of races simply doesn't work. If you're going to beat an incumbent, you need lots of money.

That said, though, I think Krasno has a point here: "It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality." This isn't an excuse to fund every challenger out there, but Krasno is right that lack of funding helps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. It would probably be a good idea to spread the wealth around this year a little more than usual.

Kevin Drum 7:49 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (65)

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Comments

Don't you live in "conservative" Orange County AND support federal bureaucracy?

Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

It is beyond comprehension that politicians are allowed to draw their own political districts. One of the things in American politics that absolutely baffles me. Kevin, what is the history of districting law?

Posted by: Old Hat on July 24, 2006 at 7:56 PM | PERMALINK
Krasno points out that in the 2004 presidential race there were plenty of swing districts (those won by less than 10 percentage points), and suggests that these seats could all be up for grabs if the Democratic Party were willing to fund serious challenges in them instead of concentrating the bulk of its money in a mere dozen races.

That's a pretty generous definition of a swing district; a 9-point, 54.5 to 45.5 result is a pretty huge victory, a 51 to 42 result is in someways a bigger win. I'd say a competitive district, inasmuch as you can define it by the results in the prior election, is more like one with less than a 5 point margin than one with less than a 10 point margin.

That said, though, I think Krasno has a point here: "It is tempting to conclude that parties are merely responding to political reality. That is certainly true, but it is also true that parties and other big players help create that reality."

That's rather obviously true, even if the entire problem were gerrymandering. Its not like legislative districts sprung fully formed from the forehead of Zeus.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 7:57 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if there is any study that shows whether, and how much, money moves votes or delivers votes. Most of the ads I see seem worthless. I suppose some money spent to get people to the polls pays off, but I think much of the spending otherwise is wasted. Anyone have examples of senate and house raises where a disparity in money actually seemed to be determinative?

Posted by: brian on July 24, 2006 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK
It is beyond comprehension that politicians are allowed to draw their own political districts.

Why is it beyond comprehension that the elected representatives of the people are allowed to make important government policy?

There's only two choices once that decision is a required part of governing: either its made by people with democratic accountability or people without it. Seems to me the former is the better choice.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 8:00 PM | PERMALINK

The success of Paul Hackett and a number of other Netroots candidates has shown that incumbents can be very vulnerable.

It might be better to say "lack of belief" rather than lack of effort has been the cause of incumbents being so successful.

Posted by: still working it out on July 24, 2006 at 8:01 PM | PERMALINK

Well, then, what's wrong with Howard Dean's strategy of building up all local precincts? Also, who on this list does not have "enough" money that the DNC should "spread the wealth"?

Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Indiana)
Senate re-election committee (Evan Bayh Committee):

$670,051.14 contributions 2nd quarter

$747,573.43 total raised 2nd quarter

$210,360.80 total spent 2nd quarter

$10,363,520.01 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (All America PAC):

$827,510.43 contributions 2nd quarter

$863,239.58 total raised 2nd quarter

$527,352.31 total spent 2nd quarter

$1,303,341.20 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Delaware)
Senate re-election committee (Citizens for Biden):

$801,444.19 contributions 2nd quarter

$823,170.53 total raised 2nd quarter

$252,597.28 total spent 2nd quarter

$3,267,834.91 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (Unite Our States):

$375,895.06 contributions 2nd quarter

$375,895.06 total raised 2nd quarter

$158,115.99 total spent 2nd quarter

$462,021.90 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark (D-Arkansas)
Leadership PAC (WesPac - Securing America’s Future):

$34,205.18 contributions in June

$50,100.89 total raised in June

$49,136.82 total spent in June

$17,064.60 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-New York)
Senate re-election committee (Friends of Hillary):

$5,367,121.78 contributions 2nd quarter

$5,679,413.01 total raised 2nd quarter

$3,381,896.69 total spent 2nd quarter

$22,000,937.48 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (Hill PAC):
$136,695.00 contributions in June

$136,734.56 total raised in June

$179,902.14 total spent in June

$57,072.59 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota)
Leadership PAC (New Leadership for America PAC):

$12,495.00 contributions raised 2nd quarter

$44,791.50 total raised 2nd quarter

$128,925.12 total spent 2nd quarter

$156,412.01 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Connecticut)
Senate re-election committee (Friends of Chris Dodd):

$9,900 contributions raised 2nd quarter

$37,006 total raised 2nd quarter

$154,846 total spent 2nd quarter

$1,881,089 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (Citizens for Hope Responsibility Independence and Service PAC - CHRIS PAC):

$382,900.00 contributions raised in June

$383,070.40 total raised in June

$46,905.72 total spent in June

$507,144.82 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-North Carolina)
Leadership PAC (One America Committee):

$413,796.58 contributions 2nd quarter

$615,081.44 total raised 2nd quarter

$326,805.71 total spent 2nd quarter

$295,434.58 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin)
Senate re-election committee (Feingold Senate Committee):

$584,249.65 contributions 2nd quarter

$595,742.18 total raised 2nd quarter

$255,316.07 total spent 2nd quarter

$1,452,114.31 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (Progressive Patriots Fund):

$94,715.30 contributions in June

$95,385.87 total raised in June

$354,882.08 total spent in June

$286,131.61 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts)
Senate re-election committee (Friends of John Kerry):

$324,353.57 contributions 2nd quarter

$798,858.62 total raised 2nd quarter (includes $400,000 transfer from John Kerry for President committee)

$788,609.48 total spent 2nd quarter

$178,579.16 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Leadership PAC (Keeping America's Promise):

$570,726.90 contributions in June

$590,095.68 total raised in June

$445,741.93 total spent in June

$646,222.42 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Previous federal committee (John Kerry for President):

$0 contributions 2nd quarter

$62,105.53 total raised 2nd quarter (other receipts, dividends, interests, etc…)

$404,870.58 total spent 2nd quarter

$8,213,832.19 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Previous federal committee (Kerry-Edwards 2004):

$0 contributions 2nd quarter

$154,496.91 total raised 2nd quarter (other receipts, dividends, interest, etc…)

$139,661.79 total spent 2nd quarter

$214,534.85 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Previous federal committee (Kerry-Edwards legal/accounting fund):

$0 contributions 2nd quarter

$333,652.65 total raised 2nd quarter

$232,579.56 total spent 2nd quarter

$5,376,244.41 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D)
Leadership PAC (Forward Together PAC):

$1,200,935.80 contributions in June

$1,209,137.17 total raised in June

$1,116,758.19 total spent in June

$4,171,627.81 cash-on-hand as of 6/30/2006

Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

There's also the much-discussed-of-late theories of the "Incumbent Party" and of the inbred "Beltway Democrats" who comprise the large majority of political consultants and hence have outsized influence.

I think I would also add what seem to be much less assertive media, whose willingness -- out of consolidation and conspiracy, or a culture of celebrity, or cowardice, or laziness, or some combination of those -- to repeat rather than interpret and challenge the spin of incumbents and courtiers has made outside challenges much more difficult.

And then there's the occasionally whispered theory that the Republicans, being the more unified minority party whose constituency is primarily the wealthy elite, have an interest in suppressing voter turnout and have been successful in doing so, at least in part by so coarsening the process that many voters who otherwise would mix up the vote a little more just stay home out of disgust.

So as a theory, yeah, one of several...

Posted by: bleh on July 24, 2006 at 8:02 PM | PERMALINK

Why is it beyond comprehension that the elected representatives of the people are allowed to make important government policy?

In a representative democracy, it's a clear, bright line conflict of interest, for starters...

Posted by: Old Hat on July 24, 2006 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

still working it out (obviously):

Paul Hackett LOST, right?

Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK
In a representative democracy, it's a clear, bright line conflict of interest, for starters...

It can be when a body does its own districting (which is a problem for most state legislatures; although since most are bicameral, its a problem avoidable without removing democratic accountability.)

Its also a problem if the system in practice obstructs democratic accountability by greatly limiting practical choices, as the combination of single-winner plurality and single-winner majority-runoff elections used throughout the US for most important offices does.

But that's a problem that is best solved, IMO, by addressing the root of the problem (which can be done in ways that reduce the stakes of legislative districting, thus further mitigating any problem that exists in the process) rather than putting it in the hands of unaccountable folks who also inevitably have and can apply without consequence their own political biases, or, alternatively, setting up a mechanistic process which invariably incorporates structurally biases to favor one faction or another and make them permanent, and retaining the fundamentally flawed high-stakes system.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 8:09 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry that list of statistics was so long, but I don't know how to make a link. Here's another statistic for you, Kevin: What about the 60 million unborn Americans who were dead before they could vote for the congressmen who draw the districts?!

Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

Paul Hackett not only lost, he lost to a non-incumbent, IIRC, so he's not the greatest example.

Posted by: Aaron S. Veenstra on July 24, 2006 at 8:37 PM | PERMALINK

I would add one more factor. Prior to the end of the fairness doctrine, and the rise of talk radio and what seems like hundreds of politcal scream shows, you could go weeks, even months, without being constantly reminded what "team" you are on.

For a large voting bloc, not sure how large, there is basically an endless election cycle, where, on a daily basis, their allegiance to one party or the other is confimed, confirmed, comfirmed.

That has to have an effect.

Posted by: hank on July 24, 2006 at 8:42 PM | PERMALINK

"money isn't concentrated just for the hell of it. There's a limited amount to go around, and there's a pretty good case to be made that modest funding in lots of races simply doesn't work. If you're going to beat an incumbent, you need lots of money."

You need money, volunteers, and passion. While I'd guess most of us have given money, I doubt many have volunteered. Why not? The bottom line is that political issues just aren't as important as they used to be (pre-1975).

Posted by: Bill on July 24, 2006 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

"Conservatives and liberals have been showing an increasing tendency to self-segregate. That is, liberals tend to move to liberal places and conservatives tend to move to conservative places."

Great that you noticed that, too, I was already wondering if I'm the only one who thinks that. Yes, imho there was more heated discussion, more intruders from the opposite view some years before. I think that many of the people who engage in comments are doing this for some years now and that this is a sign of fatigue among them. It's simply exhausting to be one of only a few arguing against the regular readers of a blog, especially if the blog has not limits on how nasty insults might become. At some right wing blogs, you can voice perfectly reasonable arguments, complete with quotes and links, and still will get rants about your alleged sexual perversions in return.

Now, if you're not a masochistic person, why would you want to experience this kind of braindead 'discussion'? The concrete heads at those blogs aren't open to anything that doesn't fit in their sick world view, there's really nothing to be gained by being the lone voice of reason.

Posted by: Gray on July 24, 2006 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

The political realities are pretty harsh. My anecdote.

I'm in a very conservative district in inland Northern California. In 2004, a very smart, articulate, hard-working, well-organized Democrat who had served two or three terms as a nonpartisan county supervisor ran against the Republican incumbent (a decent enough guy, but one who had almost nothing to show for his term in office) for state Assembly.

The same year, an absolute nobody ran against the Republican congressman, and of course John Kerry was running against Bush.

In all three of those races, the result was almost exactly the same: 66-33 in favor of the Republican. I didn't expect any of the Democrats to win, but I thought a real campaign by an experienced local pol might get her to 40 percent for state Assembly. Nope.

Fewer true independents? It's a fact.

Posted by: trotsky on July 24, 2006 at 8:55 PM | PERMALINK

"There are two big problems with Krasno's theory."

Hmm, imho, even three. Which Democrat would believe a guy's ideas about elections in red and blue states when it the guy's name turns out to mean 'Red' in russian?
:D

Posted by: Gray on July 24, 2006 at 8:59 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry that list of statistics was so long, but I don't know how to make a link. Here's another statistic for you, Kevin: What about the 60 million unborn Americans who were dead before they could vote for the congressmen who draw the districts?!

Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, Henry, old son. I'm sure you think this post is clever. But it makes no sense at all. Maybe try first for understandable, and then, after working on that for awhile, try clever.

Posted by: Pat on July 24, 2006 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK

That's good!!

Posted by: Jennifer on July 24, 2006 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK
Conservatives and liberals have been showing an increasing tendency to self-segregate. That is, liberals tend to move to liberal places and conservatives tend to move to conservative places.

I think that characterization of the facts underlying your 2004 post is quite wrong, actually; the facts there were simply that more voters live in partisan landslide counties. That doesn't justify the conclusion that this has anything to do with people moving anywhere. Its just as tenable that the parties themselves have oriented on an axis that has clear geographic differences in appeal—which isn't really some kind of historical novelty, either. Prior to the partisan realignment that began largely with the New Deal coalition, landslide counties (and states) were even more common, I suspect, than now. The relatively confused party identities from then into the 1980s weakened that, and then the recrystallization of strong ideological party identities after that has gone along way to re-establishing it.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 9:14 PM | PERMALINK

Note that my foregoing post also explains part of the reason there are fewer true independents; the reemergence of clear ideological partisan identities mean that fewer people that are engaged in politics at all are truly neutral between the major parties, even where they are dissatisfied with both of them.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

All of Kevin's reasons sound right to me. In addition, there's the despicable McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform. This law makes it harder for challengers to raise the huge amount of money needed to unseat an incumbant.

Posted by: ex-liberal on July 24, 2006 at 9:31 PM | PERMALINK

When it comes to districts, I wish we could all think outside the box, so to speak. All of the comments so far assume that we need districts at all. I do not. Eliminate them entirely, making each state a single district. Then use proportional representation like almost every nation in Europe (except the UK).

If your state has 7 representatives, each party submits a list of seven. If you get 43% of the vote, then the first three candidates on your list become representatives (43% of 7) and so on. (Yes, the system requires some rounding up or down on the last seat, or a similar mechanism.) In Spain, this system works well for a parliamentary election divided between the "comunidades autonomas" - roughly the equivalent of our states.

I live in a very conservative state with two Republican Senators and the Congressman from our district is also a Republican - and they are some of the most conservative in Congress. I have absolutely no representation in Congress. I get very negative responses from them when I write to them and ask them to oppose something.

Under proportional representation, at least I would really have a few representatives in Congress. Such a system would also help potential third parties, and I think that would be a good thing.

Posted by: Marcus on July 24, 2006 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

Can we give some thought to a bipartisan agreement to expand the House of Representatives to meet the 50,000 population limit criterion that used to exist until the last fifty to one hundred years?

A limit of 50,000 people per district would allow people to be able to meet most of the people in the district in which he or she is running, which would likely often prove an effective way to trump money and broadcast media advertising.

I'd like to know if there is enough bi-partisan support among the grass roots of the Republican and Dem Parties to make this a real issue for reform. I know one mostly Republican voter in my area in San Diego County who would support this. In fact, he raised this as a leading reform he'd like to see. He may be an unusual case among Republican oriented voters, though.

Posted by: Mitchell Freedman on July 24, 2006 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

By its nature the party apparatus is run by the incumbancy. So the entire intraparty system is fixed from the get-go.

The two-party system is self-reinforcing because bipartisanship works most effectively at the nexus of mutual self-interest and there is no more basic self-interest than that of the incumbant and his seat.

So the entire system is rigged. It only looses its moorings rarely when there is a serious systemic rot (I argue that point is far more important than national crisis as an agent of change).

And even when the public rears up and applies its cleansing brush the advantage inures to the formerly out party and almost never to a new party (that has happened only twice in our history).

Are we there? Personally I believe that there is that level of rot. But politically the voting population has confounded me for years and I see no reason to expect that this year will be different.

Posted by: paul on July 24, 2006 at 10:02 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin didn't mention Lee Atwater's most pernicious contribution to our politics: crowding minorities into bantustans so Repubs could dominate the rest. Several authoritative sources have reported that Dick Gephardt would have been Speaker of the House for a few Congresses but for this law, that has given us Mr. Jefferson of LA, Alcee Hastings of FL, etc.

Posted by: minion of rove on July 24, 2006 at 10:06 PM | PERMALINK
When it comes to districts, I wish we could all think outside the box, so to speak. All of the comments so far assume that we need districts at all. I do not. Eliminate them entirely, making each state a single district. Then use proportional representation like almost every nation in Europe (except the UK).

Few states in Europe, IIRC, use what you describe (straight party-list PR); Ireland, I'm fairly certain, uses STV in fairly small multimember districts (ISTR reading that the maximum ever used under STV there was 8/district and the current maximum is 5, but I wouldn't bet my life on those numbers), which is a candidate-centered election system which produces fairly proportional results, but retains direct accountability of candidates to the general electorate, unlike party list PR. I'm pretty sure some European countries use a dual system where voters vote in districts for particular candidates but also vote for a party (or, alternatively, vote for a candidate which counts as both a vote for that candidate and a vote for the party the candidate is from), the seats are then assigned to parties by proportion to party votes but the particular winners within each party are chosen based on the results in the specific elections. There are a bunch of other more-or-less candidate-centered systems in use in Europe that are designed to produce proportional (or at least proportional-ish) results.

OTOH, Israel, IIRC, does use straight party-list PR for elections to the Knesset.

For a lot of reasons, principally the distance it places between the general electorate and candidates, I think straight party-list PR is a bad idea (well, compared to some of the alternatives; I wouldn't say its worse than single-winner plurality, though I wouldn't commit to saying its better, either), and small (in terms of number of seats) multimember district candidate-centered systems like STV are probably the best choice.

If your state has 7 representatives, each party submits a list of seven. If you get 43% of the vote, then the first three candidates on your list become representatives (43% of 7) and so on. (Yes, the system requires some rounding up or down on the last seat, or a similar mechanism.)

It requires a lot more than that; consider the case where you have four seats and six parties getting 45%, 20%, 10%, 10%, 10%, and 5% of the vote.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 10:20 PM | PERMALINK
Can we give some thought to a bipartisan agreement to expand the House of Representatives to meet the 50,000 population limit criterion that used to exist until the last fifty to one hundred years?

I'm not sure a 6,000+ member House of Representatives is workable.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 24, 2006 at 10:24 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry that list of statistics was so long, but I don't know how to make a link. Here's another statistic for you, Kevin: What about the 60 million unborn Americans who were dead before they could vote for the congressmen who draw the districts?!
Posted by: Henry on July 24, 2006 at 8:10 PM | PERMALINK

Which would have amounted to 40 million MORE Americans without health insurance or middle-class jobs.

Posted by: osama_been_forgotten on July 24, 2006 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

For kicks and grins, I ran the numbers (number of citizens in a district) using a 535-member House, a 635-member House, and a 735-member House. 635 seemed to me to make the most sense in terms of representation, with about 390,000 or so per district and a decent weighting of seats by state.

Of course, that's just one man's opinion.

WF

Posted by: Wes F. in North Adams on July 24, 2006 at 10:51 PM | PERMALINK

In a weird sort of vicious circle, Congress passes deliberately complex laws and then spends vast amounts of money on constituent services to help voters who are having trouble with federal bureaucracy. Because of this, constituent service has skyrocketed in the past few decades, and the beneficiaries of this service tend to vote for the people who helped them regardless of party affiliation or ideology.

And, of course, one of the reasons that the laws are so convoluted is that special interests (primarily corporate ones) are paying top dollar for influence (legally, via lobbying and campaign contributions, and illegally via bribery and othe rcorrupt practices) and want the laws to reflect their agendas.

Posted by: Ed Fitzgerald (unfutz) on July 24, 2006 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

No wonder the Founding Fathers opposed political parties (dubbing them "factions"). They foresaw what a clusterfuck this country would turn into when jerkwads like Tom DeLay seized power.

I think I'm movin' to Canada - with global warming, it's lookin' better all the time...

Posted by: Fred Flintrock on July 24, 2006 at 11:09 PM | PERMALINK

There's only two choices once that decision is a required part of governing: either its made by people with democratic accountability or people without it. Seems to me the former is the better choice.

Yes, except that the purpose of gerrymandering is to reduce that accountability. Couple that with the iron discipline and party coordination that the Republicans, in particular, have shown, and you've got a recipe for undermining democracy -- at least as we've understood it.

Posted by: Ed Fitzgerald (unfutz) on July 24, 2006 at 11:11 PM | PERMALINK

Increasing the size of the House does not make much sense to me. I almost certainly have a better chance today to see my representative, at least a few times a year, than I would have in 1806. Travel is so much faster and easier today. So decreasing the number of citizens per representative by a tiny amount would not be a help. On the other hand, increasing the number of representatives substantially would sharply reduce the influence your representative has. In the course of two or three days your representative can have direct contact with and influence a large fraction of the House. Increase the number of members to a thousand and your representative will be able to influence only a small fraction of the House. So increasing the size of the House will slightly increase my influence over my representative, and greatly decrease his influence over the House, thus sharply decreasing my influence over actual legislation, which, I would think, is the goal.

Posted by: MSR on July 24, 2006 at 11:17 PM | PERMALINK

The key to modern electoral politics is that low-turnout elections work differently than high-turnout elections. The number of swing voters is lower; the capacity to identify likely supporters is higher; the large amounts of money available to incumbents can be focused on a smaller number of voters.

Posted by: Zathras on July 24, 2006 at 11:18 PM | PERMALINK

I'm not sure a 6,000+ member House of Representatives is workable.

Aw, hell, it's not that much bigger than the New Hampshire legislature's lower house...

Posted by: Davis X. Machina on July 24, 2006 at 11:25 PM | PERMALINK

""It requires a lot more than that; consider
the case where you have four seats and six
parties getting 45%, 20%, 10%, 10%, 10%,
and 5% of the vote.""

Is there any state in the US where so many 'third' parties get that many votes? If so, under our current system, in your hypothetical state/district, that party with 45% of the vote probably gets all four seats. The other 55% of the voters would be, in effect, disenfranchised, or, at least, unrepresented. Proportional representation systems can be quite complicated (which, I know, would make it even more difficult to convince voters to change to such a system), but they are far superior in terms of democratic (small d) representation.

I should also mention that even in PR systems, very small parties are eliminated. A "minimum threshold" is required. A party might have to get 5% to 15% of the votes to even get one seat. I think the Netherlands (unless that's changed) was the most generous to small parties: you only have to get 1% of the vote to claim 1 seat in the 100 seat Parliament. That is easy to understand, compared to complicated systems used in Germany, Spain and Italy, which, as you say, haved mixed systems.

In our federal system, the states don't all run all elections the same way. There's no constitutional reason why some couldn't experiment with PR.

Posted by: Marcus on July 24, 2006 at 11:26 PM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: dd on July 25, 2006 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: dd on July 25, 2006 at 12:32 AM | PERMALINK

Is there any state in the US where so many 'third' parties get that many votes?

There isn't now, but that would rapidly change with proportional voting. As pointed out upthread, Israel uses this system to elect the Knesset, and it has resulted in a spectacularly fractured party system that puts the balance of power in the hands of very small extreme parties who are needed to get any coalition over 50%. The likes of Buchanan or Fulani or Nader as kingmakers doesn't strike me as an improvement over the current system

Posted by: VAMark on July 25, 2006 at 12:35 AM | PERMALINK

With Kos constantly picking winners, the landscape should change imme..... oh, wait, never mind.

Posted by: American Hawk on July 25, 2006 at 12:42 AM | PERMALINK
Is there any state in the US where so many 'third' parties get that many votes?

No, but then there isn't any state in the US that uses anything like a PR system; under the plurality or majority-runoff system, there is strong pressure to vote strategically for one of the two major parties whatever a voter's true preferences are.

I'm not saying that that kind of vote is bad, per se, what I'm saying is that to use party-list PR, you have to do a lot more than fiddle around with the threshold for the last seat. There are a number of different ways of addressing it.

There's no constitutional reason why some couldn't experiment with PR.

For state legislative elections, this is true. I just think party-list PR, rather than something candidate-centered like STV, is a very bad idea, and frustrates accountability to the electorate.

For federal elections, there is, in fact, a combined Constitutional/statutory reason: Article I gives Congress the power to write rules for Congressional elections, and Congress has used that power to mandate single-member districts for all Congressional elections. Now, the reason for this was very good: at-large elections (essentially, either plurality or majority runoff elections in statewide districts) were being used to let a statewide majority elect all of a state's Representatives in order to effectively disenfranchise minorities (specifically, African-Americans.) But I think its pretty clear that the remedy was drawn overly bluntly. Still, so long as that law is in place, no such experimentation by the states with Congressional representation is possible.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 25, 2006 at 12:56 AM | PERMALINK
As pointed out upthread, Israel uses this system to elect the Knesset, and it has resulted in a spectacularly fractured party system that puts the balance of power in the hands of very small extreme parties who are needed to get any coalition over 50%.

Yeah, I'd hate to live in a country where major parties had to kowtow to religious extremists in order to maintain their majorities...

Er, wait...

Posted by: cmdicely on July 25, 2006 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

There is no evidence that I have seen to suggest that Gerrymandering by politicians is responsible for the increased incumbancy rate. Sure, it sounds plausible, but there are no real facts. In states with "independent" districting commissions, the incumbency rate is the same or worse. Further, the margin of victory for the incumbent has generally increased since they were drawn up. It's striking in Arizona and Iowa.

Kevin and other bloggers always decry party, incumbent gerrymandering without providing an ounce of support. I don't think Kevin reads this far down in threads, but hopefully he'll go through the last several elections for Arizona and Iowa to see how great these non-incubment drawn districts are:

Iowa 2000
Iowa 2002
Iowa 2004

Arizona 2000
Arizona 2002
Arizona 2004

The state legislatures aren't much different, you can check those out too.

Posted by: gq on July 25, 2006 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

""The likes of Buchanan or Fulani or Nader as kingmakers doesn't strike me as an improvement over the current system.""

Your point is well taken, but I wasn't suggesting changing the presidential or senatorial elections - just the house of representatives. I never meant to suggest we would move to a parliamentary system (which would require revising the Constitution). So if small parties got a foot-hold in Congress, they wouldn't be "kingmakers" - they wouldn't be electing a PM or a cabinet. They couldn't cause the Cabinet to resign, or force early elections like in some countries. They might, at most, get to decide who is Speaker of the House. In that limited sense - a kind of mixed system - the small parties would be swing votes, and could influence legislation.

You are right, of course, that things would change. Maybe the result would be good. Maybe not. I'm willing to take some risks and try new processes as long as they are progressive, democratic (small d), and preserve all of our civil rights and liberties.

After reading all the comments in this thread about incumbents and gerrymandering, it seems to me that most agree that some change is needed - some serious reform. Our incumbent government isn't giving us that - neither side of the aisle, mind you. I think it's time to shake things up a bit. If you have a better and reasonable plan to do that, I'd love to hear it. It would be great to have lots of different ideas to toss about. Then maybe different states could try different reforms. By experimenting, we might figure out what works better.

Posted by: Marcus on July 25, 2006 at 1:17 AM | PERMALINK

This is a link where you can look at the congressional district maps all over the country. So many districts, maybe most, are clearly and obviously not representative of anything except political aspirations. They don't represent real "districts" in any tangible way: not geographic regions, not social groupings, not urban areas or rural areas. Nothing to point at and say - well, the people in this area have similar concerns or interests or problems. Not even political divisions like counties or groups of counties. Nothing. Just arbitrary and capricious lines drawn wildly about the states, too often dividing urban areas into little pieces that are grouped with vast rural areas. There are exceptions - Kansas seems to be pretty well divided upon a quick perusal. Georgia, however, is clearly attempting to dilute the influence of Atlanta. Check out the convoluted, contorted districts there. Then look at all those long skinny districts in Texas. And so on, and so on. It's good entertainment. :-)

http://nationalatlas.gov/printable/congress.html

Posted by: Marcus on July 25, 2006 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

I wonder if there's any literature out there on the effect of races being uncontested for years in a congressional district--as in, even if there is a decent challenger with a decent level of funding, what would the years of the seat not being contested do to the race? If I had to guess, I believe it could drag down the prospects of the opposing candidate, no matter what his beliefs are.

I also wonder why, in a state where there's no obvious drawback for the governor or other elected official in the same party as the challenger, the already-elected official doesn't do more campaigning with the challenger. Why, for instance, wouldn't a succcessful Democratic governor spend a lot of time campaigning with Democratic challengers, if for no other reason than to increase the name recognition of the challengers? But then, perhaps it's going to a much greater degree than I realized.

Posted by: Brian on July 25, 2006 at 2:00 AM | PERMALINK

The problem is that the democratic party makes no effort to put forth a reason for anyone to vote for them. They have failed to educate the public in any way about their beliefs and what they are working towards. This lack of ideology has allowed the republicans to create the democrat's image for them.

There are compelling ideas about the future of this country held by liberals. The country probably will not survive without the populace adopting these ideas. Unfortunately, the democratic party either does not understand them or does not possess the will to educate the citizens.

Posted by: Mysticdog on July 25, 2006 at 2:22 AM | PERMALINK

All of the comments above will be germaine when the the GOP is forced to stop cheating in elections. I'm tired of strategizing in a game that is clearly rigged in many parts of the country. If the best Democrats can do is play on the deck of the Titanic, we are done.

Posted by: Jason T. on July 25, 2006 at 3:01 AM | PERMALINK

I think it is worth doing something about gerrymandering, and not just in order to make districts less extreme politically. Gerrymandering also dramatically raises the amount of money a challenger needs.

This is because gerrymandering creates districts that wind through parts of multiple media markets. If a challenger wants to buy some TV or radio commercials, having to buy them in two or three media markets doubles or triples the cost of having to buy them in one.

Posted by: RT on July 25, 2006 at 9:37 AM | PERMALINK

I think there's a certain value to at least showing up in every Congressional race. I'd like to see 435 Dem candidates every time, with at least some party funding.

I'm not talking about a lot; I'm thinking maybe $20K per candidate that doesn't already have way more than that, plus a week-long nuts-and-bolts class for the beginners on how to organize and jump-start a Congressional campaign on a shoestring.

There are several reasons for this:

1) If you don't play, you never find out whether you might have a chance to win. By running candidates, you find out just how much support for your side there actually is in each district.

2) Congressional candidates recruit and organize volunteers, and then you're not starting from scratch in that department the next time that district is vulnerable, or if the state becomes a battleground in a Senate/Gov/Pres. race, and it all of a sudden makes a difference if you can get 36% instead of 28% in that red Congressional district.

3) By actually running candidates, you keep your partisans more involved, giving them reasons to hope. And it also means more reach-out to persuadable voters.

Posted by: RT on July 25, 2006 at 9:51 AM | PERMALINK
Krasno points out that in the 2004 presidential race there were plenty of swing districts (those won by less than 10 percentage points), and suggests that these seats could all be up for grabs if the Democratic Party were willing to fund serious challenges in them instead of concentrating the bulk of its money in a mere dozen races.

Good gerrymandering produces exactly this sort of result. Ideally, every district would just barely win a majority of your party. Thus a 51/49 state could produce a result where every district is represented by exactly one party. Close races do not necessarily indicate competitiveness.

Posted by: MLE on July 25, 2006 at 10:07 AM | PERMALINK

In 1990 - 91, I was research assistant on a paper (never published, but not for lack of trying) by Robert Arseneau (Dartmouth) that studied the incumbent effect from 1932 - 1990. The key findings were:

1) the incumbent effect was larger in the post-Watergate period than at any previous time.

2) the incumbent effect was felt more quickly in the post 1982 period than at any previous time.

I think point #2 is largely lost on most people. In the 1932 - 1944 era, a newly elected congressman would gain support through incumbency over the course of about four elections. The largest jump was from initial election to second election (initial incumbent effect); but there were consistent measurable increases between second and third elections (we dubbed it the "sophomore surge") and the third and fourth elections (the "junior jump"). After four elections, support levels for incumbents leveled off. In the 1932 - 44 period, the initial incumbent effect was about twice the size of the sophmore surge, which was about twice the size of the junior jump. If I recall correctly, adding all three together led to a median incumbency effect of about 8%.

In the post-Watergate era (1976 - 1990), the overall incumbency effect that we found was approximately 10%, and almost all of it was felt in the first incumbent election. There was almost no measurable "sophomore surge" or "junior jump". We speculated that this might be because post-Watergate incumbents could take advantage of incumbency more quickly: 1) better access to mass media, 2) more Congressional resources available to junior committee members afte the post-Watergate changes to the commmitte system and 3) more opportunities for community service in navagating the bureaucracy.

One result of the earlier on-set and larger size) of the incumbency effect is to reduce the number of competitive districts. It used to be that a competitor had approximately three election cycles to pick-off a new incumbent before the full incumbency factor was absorbed. Now, if you don't get the new incumbent in the first race, you probably won't get him/her at all.

Obviously, my data is about 15 years out of date, and I have not followed the literature (Gary Jacobson at UCSD was the leader) since graudation. Anyone have a citation for more recent data on these points.

Posted by: Ephus on July 25, 2006 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

Alan Abramowitz at Emory is probably the best analyst of House election trends. I'd review his writing through links on the Emory site to get current. RE: the interesting suggestions about the incumbency effect and how it has changed since 1932, I'd ask how the changes relate to turnout. As I note upthread I think turnout is a key, and under-researched, variable.

Having said that I should note that if you are going all the way back to 1932 there will be a methodological problem with respect to southern states at least, because of their one-party status and the restrictions they placed on voting.

Posted by: Zathras on July 25, 2006 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

If you want to minimize gerrymandering, just stipulate that district lines have to follow existing municipal or county boundaries. You would get more geographically compact districts and make it very difficult for the people drawing districts to cherry-pick small pockets of voters.

Posted by: MattW on July 25, 2006 at 11:11 AM | PERMALINK
Second, money isn't concentrated just for the hell of it. There's a limited amount to go around, and there's a pretty good case to be made that modest funding in lots of races simply doesn't work. If you're going to beat an incumbent, you need lots of money.

Money is the mother's milk of politics. It helps spread the word, organize the campaign, and, in a phrase, fight.

Let's make our political system more competitive and vibrant. Let's abolish campaign contribution limits.

Posted by: c on July 25, 2006 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Now, if you're not a masochistic person, why would you want to experience this kind of braindead 'discussion'? The concrete heads at those blogs aren't open to anything that doesn't fit in their sick world view, there's really nothing to be gained by being the lone voice of reason Comment by Gray

Gray,

Personally, I find it to be a lot of fun, much more fun than being just one voice in a large choir.

Posted by: Al on July 25, 2006 at 11:36 AM | PERMALINK

Admittedly we do self select (I've thought about this recently, that my own personal election strategy has written off entire states, if I began a procedure of infiltrating say Eastern Tennessee, everyone would benefit).

But perhaps I'm just really argumentative. I was never more conservative than when I lived in Northern California. It was either that I just wasn't all that far to the left (while my friends were) or that I just naturally pull to the middle.

Now that I'm back on the East Coast -- I find that I'm much more liberal again. I sort of like that about living here. I feel like myself again.

Posted by: DC1974 on July 25, 2006 at 11:37 AM | PERMALINK
If you want to minimize gerrymandering, just stipulate that district lines have to follow existing municipal or county boundaries.

One person one vote will generally prevent this from being universally followed, there will have to be exceptions (which, of course, will be the focus of gerrymandering efforts.)

And, in many cases, this rule, if followed, itself would create a pro-Republican distortion in representation, as in many states the Democratic advantage in urban counties is much greater than the Republican advantage in rural/suburban counties, much Republican gerrymandering focuses on concentrating Democrats in supermajority urban districts, which this rule would encourage.

The way to minimize gerrymandering is not to create rules which narrow discretion as to setting district lines, the way to minimize gerrymandering is to minimize the gain to be had by gaming district lines.

Posted by: cmdicely on July 25, 2006 at 12:05 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,
This year will be the perfect test year to decide if the institutionalization thesis is true.

It has all the earmarks of a political tidal wave against the majority party. If it doesn't materialize--if the Republicans maintain control of Congress even--than I think our democracy is in serious trouble.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwartz on July 25, 2006 at 12:46 PM | PERMALINK

Money is far more concentrated. Incumbents outspend challengers by a ratio of 5:1 or more these days, and this has become increasingly important as campaigns have become increasingly dependent on media buys.

Um, right, Kevin. Which kinda side steps the elephant in the middle of the room that nobody's talking about, but which is the REAL culprit in sky-high reelection rates: contribution limits.

What percentage of incumbents face a well-financed challenger? My guess is a pretty low one. And that's not surprising, since increasingly, only rich folks can mount a legitimate challenge. Allow non-wealthy people to accept unlimited donations (with full disclosure, of course) and you'll lee a lot of incumbents suddenly finding it much more difficult to win reelection.

Posted by: Maxwell on July 25, 2006 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

With regard to Zathras comments' on methodology going back to 1932, we accommodated the problem with Southern (one party) states and states (such as Tennessee) that had at large voting for all districtss by not using those states.

Posted by: Ephus on July 25, 2006 at 3:40 PM | PERMALINK

To be clear, we did not eliminate the states forever, only for the years when they did not have two party elections or single district elections (and the first election thereafter). I also recall that we had a methodology for dealing with districts that were effectively one party (i.e. if the incumbent got over 80% of the vote in two successive elections, the difference was not attributed to incumbency effects).

Posted by: Ephus on July 25, 2006 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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