Downs' Revenge

Downs' Revenge: How Polarized Candidates Communicate to Voters and Win Elections

Over the last fifty years, members of Congress have grown increasingly misaligned with the issue attitudes of their constituents. Yet, this disconnect carries risks --challengers have many out-of-step votes to highlight in attack. Nevertheless, incumbents are returned to office at rates no different today than at the 20th-century ebb in polarization. How do congressional candidates overcome these electoral risks when running on polarized legislative records?

Rather than cultivate a 'personal vote' or run faithfully on their records, I argue that candidates battle over policy through issue distancing strategies. These strategies flood the campaign environment with information portraying their own policy records as relatively centrist, and their opponents as extremists, making it hard for voters to punish out-of-step politicians. Issue agendas are fundamental to the account. By highlighting the issue priorities and frames voters typically associate with the other party, politicians can cultivate more centrist impressions of their legislative records, without having to flipflop or highlight divisive positions.

The book combines observational and experimental data measuring the content and impact of political advertising. The book features an original dataset of 26,124 House and Senate television advertisements from 1968 to 2018 in the Congressional Ads Project collected through field research funded by the National Science Foundation and the Dirksen Congressional Center. The main analysis uses 90,000 individual issue positions transcribed from the ads. These are scaled on an ideological dimension using an innovative, crowdsourcing approach that has survey participants infer the party of the candidate airing the message just from the issue and policy content contained in it.

A major finding in the book, candidates consistently emphasize counter-stereotypical issues and policies in their positive ads, while attacking opponents in ways that reflect legislative polarization. Counter to conventional view, congressional campaigns are not about issue avoidance, and actively communicate policy priorities to voters. Yet, ironically, this information may be of limited value to voters when selecting candidates. Joining other work on persuasion, the book also shows that campaign messaging can move both voter impressions and preferences between competing candidates. Overall, the book suggests how candidate-centered competition between polarized party candidates can fundamentally weaken democratic accountability, and contribute to the information shortfalls that persist in public attitudes about parties, issues, and candidates.

Some Relevant papers:

Issue Distancing in Congressional Campaigns

Inference Experiments to Measure Partisanship in Campaign Advertising

Blind Guessing? Voter Competence About Partisan Messaging