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Elections 2004

Congressional Elections
John H. Aldrich

While the media will focus most of their attention on the presidential election in 2004, Americans will be voting at the same time to elect thousands of others to a wide variety of offices. Elections for the U.S. Congress in particular may be as competitive and nearly as important as the presidential campaign. At present, the balance of power in the Congress between the two major political parties is quite close. Indeed, the Republicans hold only a 12-seat majority (out of 435) in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, and just 51 of the 100 seats in the Senate, the upper chamber.

The congressional elections are important because of the central role the Congress plays in making policy. Unlike a parliamentary system, the American system is one of separate powers between Congress and the president. All laws are written in and must be passed by the Congress. Also as opposed to parliamentary systems, party discipline is often less strictly observed. Members of Congress are free to vote on policies as they think best, including what they think best for winning their own reelection. As a result, congressional leaders must put together a winning coalition one member at a time, rather than count on unified support from highly disciplined parties, thus making every congressional victory or defeat important for both parties.

Having separate and independent elections for every office means that it is possible for one party to control the Congress while a member of the other party is president. This so-called divided government has become very common. Different parties have controlled the House and the presidency for 16 of the last 24 years. The Republicans have held the majority in the House since1994. They also controlled the Senate from 1994 until 2000, the last six of Democratic President Bill Clinton's eight-year administration.

The 2000 elections ended with the Republicans winning the presidency and keeping their House majority. Both parties, however, held 50 Senate seats. The Constitution gives the vice president (Republican Dick Cheney) the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, so the Republicans held the majority by the very slimmest of margins after the 2000 election, yielding the Republicans unified control of the federal government.

In June 2001, Republican Senator James Jeffords quit the Republican Party, swinging control of the Senate back to the Democrats and re-creating a divided government. The Democrats, in turn, lost that tiny majority in the 2002 election, returning the Republicans to unified control.

How the Congress Is Chosen

The House and the Senate have nearly equal powers, but their means of election are quite different. The Founders of the American Republic intended members of the House to be close to the public, reflecting its wishes and ambitions most faithfully in legislating. Therefore, the Founders designed the House to be relatively large and to have frequent (two-year) elections. Originally, a two-year term was considered by some to be too long. Today, it is more common to be concerned that frequent election means that incumbents are always running for reelection and therefore seldom consider what is best for the nation, only what is best for their electoral fortunes.

Each House seat represents a geographic constituency, and every member is elected from a unique, or "single-member," district by plurality rule; that is, the candidate with most votes wins election. Each of the 50 states is assured of at least one seat in the House, with the rest allocated to the states by population. Alaska, for example, has a very small population and therefore holds only one seat in the House. California is the largest state and currently holds 53 seats.

The Senate was designed to represent the states and, in fact, senators were originally selected by state legislatures. It was not until passage of the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1913 that senators were directly elected by their state's voters. Every state has two senators elected for six-year terms, with one-third of the Senate seats up for reelection every two years. In effect, then, senators are chosen by plurality vote of the electorate, with a state serving as a single-member district.

Elections that are decided by plurality rule, especially from single-member districts, are very likely to result in a system with exactly two major political parties. This is so because any third-party candidate has very little chance of winning. Voters prefer to avoid "wasting" their votes on what they consider to be hopeless campaigns, and candidates who want to win election therefore avoid affiliation with any hopeless party. Since there is no "peripheral representation," minority voices tend to be represented within one of the two strong parties rather than by splinter groups of less popular opinion. Throughout its history, the United States has never had more than two major parties. Today, even at the height of what are known as "candidate-centered" elections, third parties and candidates may often try, but they very rarely win elections. After the 2002 elections, just two of the 435 members of the U.S. House were independents, and there was only one independent senator in the 100-member Senate. All other seats in both houses were won by members of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, America's two major parties since 1860.

Factors in Congressional Elections

Throughout most of U.S. history, congressional elections were "party centered." Because most voters had long-term loyalties toward one political party or the other, they tended to cast their votes along party lines. Members of Congress were often reelected, sometimes holding their position for decades, because a majority of their constituents supported their party. Their efforts as individual incumbents often only marginally added to or subtracted from their support. In more recent years, candidates' personalities and issues have emerged as forces that add to the impact of party loyalties.

Indeed, since the 1960s, national elections have become increasingly candidate centered. The ability of candidates to campaign over television, to raise huge amounts of money, and to conduct polls and other aspects of modern campaigning has made the voter more aware of the candidate as an individual. As a result, voters tend to consider their impression of the strengths and weaknesses of the two candidates, in addition to weighing their party loyalties.

Candidate-centered voting is a major advantage to incumbent members of Congress. Incumbents, in general, receive far more exposure on television and in newspapers than those challenging them. With greater media exposure and substantial influence over public policy, incumbents are also able to raise far greater sums of money with which to campaign. For these reasons and more, incumbents who run for reelection are very likely to win. In 2002, 398 House members ran for reelection, and only 16 were defeated, while a mere three out of 26 senators running for reelection lost. With a reelection rate of 88 percent for the Senate and 96 percent for the House, it is fair to say that congressional elections are not just candidate centered but incumbent centered as well.

With more money and media coverage, incumbents win because they are known to the electorate, while challengers often are not. Surveys have shown that more than nine in ten respondents recognize the name of their House or Senate incumbent, but barely more than half recognize the name of the major challenger, even at the end of the campaign. Because challengers are so little known, they have a very difficult time persuading those with money to give it to them. This leads to an unfortunate cycle in which potentially strong candidates often choose not to run against established incumbents, and those "long shots" who do run cannot raise money to get their campaigns started.

Contributions to US House Campaigns
(Source: U.S. Statistical Abstract)

The amount of money contributed to congressional candidates by political action committees (PACs) suggests the importance of money, party, and incumbency in congressional elections. PAC contributions to the two major parties from 1983 until 2000 (the last year for which such data are available) are shown in figure 1. This figure illustrates the overall increase in money flowing into elections over this period. Note also that the Democrats held a substantial advantage in PAC support through 1994, that is, during the years when they were the majority party. In the last three election cycles, the Republicans caught up to the Democrats in PAC support. With such close competition, both parties now receive virtually the same amount of contributions from PACs.

(Source: U.S. Statistical Abstract)

Figure 2 shows PAC donations to incumbents and their challengers over the same time period. The massive advantage incumbents have in fund-raising is apparent every election. Indeed, the amount that PACs contribute to incumbents has increased substantially over the last two decades, while funds going to challengers have increased much less. This figure alone suggests why such a high proportion of incumbents are reelected.

When challengers do become known to the electorate, voters then are much more likely to treat the two candidates more equally, voting for the candidate with what the voter believes to be the stronger message.

What appeals are most effective in congressional elections? This, too, has changed, especially in the most recent elections.

Until recently, congressional elections were generally decided based on the specific interests and concerns of a district, and not on national issues. This was especially true in "midterm elections," that is, those held in the middle of a president's four-year term, and thus lacking in the inherently national focus of a presidential campaign. This local focus of elections fit nicely with the rise of candidate-centered elections, enabling the candidates to tailor their appeals to their particular district. The 1994 elections were a watershed. The Republican Party carried a majority in the Senate and won an astonishing 52 seats away from the Democratic Party in the House to emerge
with a majority there for the first time in 40 years. Part of the strategy of their leader, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, was a ten-point legislative program, called the Contract with America. The contract had been endorsed by a great majority of Republican candidates for the House early in the campaign and became especially important after the election. Gingrich promised — mostly successfully — that the new Republican majority would pass legislation inspired by the contract through the House in an amazingly rapid 100 days. This focus raised the profile of the Republican Party and its leadership. It therefore set a standard by which national issues and something like a national party platform would be a standard part of the midterm campaigns.

The two midterm elections held since 1994 were as surprising as the 1994 elections. In 1998, for the first time since 1934, the party of an incumbent president won seats (in this case, five seats
and six seats, respectively) from the opposition party in the House. While the Republicans held on to their majority in Congress, they were perceived as essentially losing the 1998 elections. Many in the party blamed that "defeat" on the party's failure to adopt a clear national stance on the issues. The Democrats failed to gain seats and win a majority 2002, and once again, whether true or not, many party leaders traced that defeat to failure to outline a partisan national platform.

Congressional Elections in 2004

The dramatic twists and turns of congressional elections over the last decade make forecasting hazardous. Indeed, the most important points may well be that the old ways in which campaigns were conducted are no longer the most effective and that voters are in the process of changing how they reach their decisions. Still, there are some things to look for in 2004.

The most pressing question for 2004 is whether the Democrats can capture enough seats to regain the majority in the House. There are only 34 Senate seats up for election, 19 currently held by Democrats. In addition, fewer Republicans had close races the last time out, and 22 races will be in states that George W. Bush won in 2000. It therefore appears unlikely that the Democrats can anticipate winning any Senate seats. Hence, the Republican Senate majority appears safe, and attention will turn to the House.

Both parties are trying to recruit the strongest possible candidates and to mobilize resources for the House elections. A great deal depends upon recruitment of new candidates for the House, especially those who have electoral experience, such as members of state legislatures. Equally important, however, is the degree to which their party's presidential nominee strengthens or weakens the chances of House candidates, particularly those running for seats not contested by the current occupant. The combination of experienced and effective candidates for the House and a strong campaign by the party's presidential candidate can create the largest swings in seats between the two parties.

In recent decades, the "length of presidential coattails" — that is, how many voters vote for the same party for Congress as they do for the president — have shortened. The two votes are relatively independent. Besides, in 2000, with the two presidential candidates receiving nearly the same vote, this tie could not advantage either party in the congressional races. With an incumbent expected to seek reelection and with such a close balance between the two parties in Congress, the partisan balance in Congress might well depend on the presidential vote. Should President George Bush be able to hold the high approval ratings he received during and immediately after the war with Iraq, he might well strengthen the hold of his party in both House and Senate. Should his approval ratings plummet due perhaps to economic issues, then he conceivably could take the decade-long Republican majority in the House along with him.

If national issues are increasingly important parts of congressional elections, the most important national force in 2004 will be the presidential candidates and their policy campaigns. This aspect is the hardest to forecast. On the Democratic side, the presidential nomination race as of this writing is wide open, with numerous candidates seeking the nomination and with no one of them yet emerging as front-runner. At this point, we cannot tell whether a liberal or moderate, or a pro- or anti-war candidate, will be at the top of the Democratic ticket. If, as expected, he chooses to run, we can be confident that President Bush will win renomination.

It is likely that domestic policies will re-emerge as the central issues in 2004. Still, the war on terrorism is likely to remain the one major foreign policy issue. It has been some time — since the fall of the Soviet Union — that international concerns have been of major importance in a presidential election, and how the two sides will frame the debate and how the public reacts are highly uncertain. At this moment, however, it appears that the U.S. economy is likely to be the dominant concern among voters. Once again, however, there is great uncertainty, in this case about whether the economy will be (and will be seen to be) improving strongly, and thus favor Republicans, or continue to be weak or even in recession, and thus make the economy an issue for Democratic resurgence.

In sum, partisan control of the House and Senate is at stake in 2004, due to the very close balance between the two parties that has been true over the last decade. There is therefore much at stake for American democracy, as the direction that policy takes will be very different if one party, the other, or neither is in control. To compound that uncertainty, the congressional outcomes may well be determined by the public's reaction to the two presidential candidates; as well as who the Democratic Party candidates will be, what they will espouse, and how the public will react to them. All of this makes watching the 2004 contests unusually exciting.
John H. Aldrich is Pfizer-Pratt University Professor of Political Science at Duke University. He specializes in American politics and behavior, formal theory, and methodology. Books he has authored or co-authored include Why Parties?, Before the Convention: strategies and choices in Presidential nomination camaigns, Linear Probability, Logit and Probit Models, and a series of books on elections, the most recent of which, Change and Continuity in the 2000 and 2002 Elections, was recently published. His articles have appeared in many journals.


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  Aktualisiert: Februar 2004