Chapter Study Outline

  1. Introduction
    1. In all elections, but especially in the case of congressional elections, the outcome of an election is often driven by factors and events beyond the control of the candidates and parties., Even strong candidates or incumbents can lose what might have been considered an easy win. 
    2. In congressional campaigns, campaign finance laws and constitutional provisions require particular attention; these, as well as the ungovernable factors of the political and economic climate, shape the way that candidates and their teams, as well as political scientists, must think about these elections.
  2. Rules, Reality and Who Runs for Congress
    1. The Constitutional requirements for running for Congress are a minimum age, U.S. citizenship for a period of years, and residency in the state that the candidate wants to represent.
    2. In most serious cases, those who run for election only run if they believe that they can win their race, meaning that most have resources at their disposal and are ambitious individuals interested in politics. In many cases, confidence in a positive outcome comes only with incumbency, which leads most incumbents to run for re-election. Incumbents sometimes exercise the option to retire when they feel the political climate is bad or, in the House of Representatives, when redistricting has changed their constituency and they think their chances of winning are not good.
    3. Candidates who are not incumbents can be classified as quality challengers, who have political and financial backing and the background necessary to run a successful race, or political amateurs, who have no political experience and are unlikely to win. Sometimes political parties choose committees to pinpoint potential successful candidates, and help them to run a good campaign, especially in states or for seats where the race is important to the political party as a whole.
  3. Campaign Organization and Funding
    1. U.S. campaigns center on the candidates, so initially it is usually the candidates that put together a campaign staff and begin the organization process. These organizations can be very small and run by unpaid volunteers, or they can be professionalized, in which consultants specializing in running campaigns are hired and funded in part by a national political party.
    2. Well-funded campaigns, usually by for Senate and House incumbents in competitive races, usually hire campaign managers to independently run the campaign, as well as consultants to conduct polls, develop campaign ads, and recruit volunteers. The importance of fundraising increases exponentially for these larger campaigns, which can cost into the tens of millions of dollars.
    3. Funding for congressional races differs from fundraising for presidential races in certain ways, the most obvious being that candidates for congress cannot receive public funds for their campaigns. Many congressional candidates rely more on PACs and large donors (who give more than $200) than presidential candidates, in part because their constituency and donor pool is smaller than a presidential candidates’. In many cases, the candidates for House and Senate seats will use their own personal funds to back their campaign in order to make up for any budget discrepancies, which can be very risky if they still do not win. 
  4. The Primary
    1. Because of the general lack of competitiveness in congressional elections, it is normal for primaries to be uncontested in many districts, especially primaries for the incumbent’s party, which are called incumbent-only races. There are also open-seat primaries, in which no incumbent runs, and sometimes redistricting can create a primary—or election—in which two incumbents must run against one another for the new seat.
    2. Open-seat primaries are typically the most competitive, and usually the political party remains neutral until after the voters have made their choice, though sometimes conventions or committees will intervene and officially support a candidate if the general election will be competitive and they believe one primary candidate could be more successful.
    3. Voters in primary elections are more idealistic than those in general elections, so candidates must take care to appeal to them while also not sabotaging their chances by straying too far from the moderate stance necessary to win a general election. Some adopt slightly more extreme stances in the primary and then move back towards the center in the general election by focusing on their personal characteristics and past actions, though sometimes this may backfire and the electorate might see them as “flip-flopping.”
  5. The General Election
    1. In many cases, the most important part of a general election campaign is getting voters to recognize the candidate and their name; challengers in particular must make it a goal to disseminate basic information about themselves to potential voters. There are certain steps that most campaigns take in order to run a successful general election campaign:
      1. After understanding who a candidate’s target audience is, the campaign must establish a message that appeals to this audience, which means both focusing on important issues and choosing the right stance to take. In many cases, the networks that incumbents or quality challengers have help these candidates chose a message, which usually focus on both national and local issues, with national issues being more prevalent in congressional campaign messages. 
      2. Candidates, once they have decided on a good message, must then communicate the message to voters. They can use media, such as television, though this is used less frequently in congressional races than in presidential races, because of the expense as well as the lack of district or state “borders” of media markets. Because of this, many candidates utilize newspapers, billboards, and yarn signs to get their message across.
      3. Congressional candidates do have the ability to reach out to their constituencies in ways that those running for president cannot, mostly because their constituency is much smaller. Candidates can also vie for earned media, or free media coverage, by holding promotional events and using gimmicks to receive media attention.
      4. Candidates must also get voters to the polls, and the same model of mobilization is used by congressional campaigns as is used by presidential campaigns. However, congressional candidates usually have smaller, less sophisticated mobilization drives because they do not have the same resources at their disposal. In presidential years, congressional candidates benefit from presidential campaign mobilization efforts, unlike during midterm elections when they have to work to bring in voters themselves.
    2. Parties and Hill committees have a set of priorities during election season—first, to protect incumbents in danger of losing their seat; second, to defend the seat of retiring members of their party; and finally, to help with fiercely contested, close, and politically opportune races. Hill committees are happy to move their support where they feel it is necessary during an election. They are usually funded by independent expenditures, which are used without coordinating with or consulting the candidate or his campaign, and which the Supreme Court has ruled cannot be limited in any way. They also help campaigns by mobilizing grassroots efforts in their candidates’ communities as well as get-out-the-vote programs.
  6. The Incumbency Advantage
    1. Incumbents in congressional elections are almost always more likely to win their elections than challengers. This can be explained by several factors, including their greater political experience, their increased ability to raise funds as a known winner, and their familiarity to voters that is only bolstered by some of the perks of serving in Congress, such as the ability to send mail without paying for postage (though they cannot use this specifically for campaigning purposes). Familiarity can lead to success for incumbents, even if they are generally unpopular, with citizens tending to vote for a familiar face over an unfamiliar entity.
    2. The advantage incumbents have in an election has changed over time—usually measured by a combination of how well incumbents do during their second election in comparison to their first (when they were not incumbents), as well as how well newcomers do in their first election in comparison to the incumbent who retired from the seat.
    3. Using these numbers, political scientists have concluded that, generally, the incumbency advantage has increased over time, probably because of the growth of local television stations and the increase of incumbent familiarity. Also, representatives and senators have increased the amount of official advantages they have while in office that potentially increase their ability to campaign, and redistricting allows incumbents the opportunities to judge their entire constituency and retire if they do not like their chances for re-election.
    4. Though the rate of success is high for incumbents, there are many risks to running that can lead many incumbents to fight very hard during elections, or preemptively take themselves out of the running. Incumbents are vulnerable both when they are new to their position and when they have been in Washington long enough that their local support might feel detached from them, and, if they lose, they also lose their job, political power, and sometimes their chance for a further political career.
  7. The Declining Competitiveness of Congressional Elections
    1. There are few congressional races that are closely contested or competitive, which is measured by how many seats are won by the political party that holds the majority of the legislature (or net partisan turnover). The more seats that are won, the more competitive the election.
    2. Electoral competitiveness has not decreased in open-seat House races, but it has decreased significantly in races in which there is an incumbent, which is probably caused by the increased power of incumbency, the increase in party loyalty, and redistricting.
    3. There are several concerns raised by the decline in electoral competition. It can undermine democratic accountability and it can prevent congressional demographics from changing to reflect the electorate, such as women and minorities in an area. The electorate can change during the terms of an incumbent, and without a competitive election, the incumbent has little incentive to reflect that change.
    4. Declining competition may not, however, be a serious problem, if the decline in competition is limited to a particular Congressional district rather than Congress as a whole.. Some political scientists believe that as long as there are changes in the party control of Congress, it doesn’t matter whether there are changes in the party control of a congressional seat. Also, many incumbents still have competition in primaries if not in their general elections, meaning that they do have to answer to at least a portion of their constituency.
    5. Reforms have been proposed to increase competition, including the imposition of term limits, which has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, and public financing for congressional candidates, which would provide the resources needed to increase information dissemination. Redistricting could also be used to re-draw competitive districts, but this can conflict with the imperative to create majority-minority districts under the Voting Rights Act, and many have doubts whether it would create competition effectively at all.