Book Project

Downs' Revenge: How Polarized Candidates Inform Voters and Win Elections

Congress has grown increasingly contentious and polarized over the last few decades, and voters say they are fed up with the partisan gridlock and division in Washington. Yet, incumbents are rarely held accountable for their partisanship in office. In this book, I explore how it is that candidates run and win elections after compiling polarized records out-of-step with voters in their districts. Rather than avoiding issues, emphasizing constituent service, or explicitly running as a partisan, I argue that polarized incumbents increasingly pursue issue distancing strategies to insulate themselves from electoral risk, portraying themselves as more moderate (and their opponents as more extreme) than their legislative records would indicate. 

Using issue statements from an original dataset of 12,692 House and Senate television advertisements from 1968 to 2008 (see the Congressional Ads Project), I find that candidates consistently run away from their partisan records in the campaign and do so by airing increasingly policy-oriented statements. Contrary to issue ambiguity or party brand theories, there is little evidence that cross-pressured candidates actively avoid talking about policy or highlight partisan issues to mobilize their base in contemporary elections. These findings suggest that electoral competition may yield worse, rather than better representation outcomes, and may contribute to voters'  information shortfall about politics. The evidence also suggests an important electoral mechanism (issue distancing) that may sustain polarized parties in spite of their growing unpopularity and potentially troublesome effects on governance in the U.S.

Some relevant papers:

"Issue Distancing in Congressional Campaigns". 

"Using Disjointed Media Markets to Assess Congressional Advertising Effects".

"An Experimental Approach to Measuring Ideological Positions in Political Text".

"Information and Extremity in Negative Advertising".