Political Participation: How do we choose our representatives through elections and voting?

The United States House of Representatives (2016) (credit: http://www.congressional-maps.com/what-is-the-house-of-representatives/; US Congressional District Resource)

The United States House of Representatives in 2016. (Credit: U.S. Congressional District Resource; http://www.congressional-maps.com/what-is-the-house-of-representatives/)

Learning Objectives

  • Explain how fundamental characteristics of the House and Senate shape their elections.
  • Discuss the effects of incumbency.
  • Analyze the way congressional elections can sometimes become nationalized.

Who can be elected to Congress?

Congressional Districts

House members are elected by the voters in their specific congressional districts. There are currently 435 congressional districts in the United States and thus 435 House members. Each state has a number of House districts roughly proportional to its share of the total U.S. population, with states guaranteed at least one House member. Two senators are elected by each state.

Map of United States Representatives Congressional Districts for the State of Texas (credit: Texas Legislative Council). The State of Texas has 36 congressional districts with one member of Congress elected by the voters of each district. Texas has two senators elected at-large by all voters in the state.

Map of United States Representatives Congressional Districts for the State of Texas (Credit: Texas Legislative Council).

The State of Texas has 36 congressional districts with one member of Congress elected by the voters of each district. Texas has two senators elected at-large by all voters in the state. In a system in which individual candidates compete for individual seats representing unique geographic districts, election winners are required to receive either a majority (simply the greater number/typically more than half) of votes or at least a plurality (one candidate receives more than another) of the votes. Because of this structure of U.S. congressional elections, there has been a strong tendency to have one of the two major political parties dominant in who actually wins these legislative seats. Thus, the first step in election to the U.S. Congress is to be nominated by a major political party. The election to Congress actually involves a two-step election process. An individual must first win the nomination in a primary election and then win in the fall general election to earn the right to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Moreover, many congressional districts across the country are safe seats in noncompetitive districts, meaning candidates from a particular party are statistically likely to consistently win the seat. Therefore, the functional decision in these elections occurs during the party primary, not in the general election.

Because its members serve short two-year terms they must regularly answer to the demands of their constituency when they run for election or reelection. This allows voters to develop a personal relationship with “their” government. They know exactly whom to blame, or thank, for the actions of that government. Frequently, House members of the same party in the same state can disagree on issues because of the different interests of their specific districts. Thus, the House can be highly partisan.

In contrast, members of the Senate are furthest removed from the demands and scrutiny of their constituents. Because of their longer six-year terms, they will see every member of the House face his or her constituents multiple times before they themselves seek reelection. Originally, when a state’s two U.S. senators were appointed by the state legislature, the Senate chamber’s distance from the electorate was even greater. Unlike House members who can seek the narrower interests of their district, senators must maintain a broader appeal across their entire state.

What are the effects of incumbency?

Incumbents are elected officials who currently hold an office. The amount of money they raise against their challengers demonstrates their advantage. In 2014, for example, the average Senate incumbent raised $12,144,933, whereas the average inexperienced challenger raised only $1,223,566.[1]

This is one of the many reasons incumbents win a large majority of congressional races each electoral cycle. Incumbents attract more money because people want to give to a winner. In the House, the percentage of incumbents winning reelection has stayed between 85 and 100 percent for the last half century. The Senate sees slightly more variation given the statewide nature of the race, but it is still a very high majority of incumbents who win reelection. As these rates show, even in the worst political environments incumbents are very difficult to defeat.

A chart titled U.S. House and Senate Reelection Rates, 1964–2014

The historical difficulty of unseating an incumbent in the House or Senate is often referred to as the incumbent advantage or the incumbency effect. The financing advantage is a significant part of this effect, but it is not the only contributor.

What contributes to this advantage and often persuades competent challengers not to run? First, incumbents have name recognition and voting records. The media is more likely to interview them because they have advertised their name over several elections and have voted on legislation affecting the state or district. Incumbents also have won elections before, which increases the odds that political action committees and interest groups will give them money; most interest groups will not give money to a candidate destined to lose.

The way the party system itself privileges incumbents is even more important. The leadership of major political parties in general prefer to support incumbents because incumbents are considered better candidates, and their record of success supports this conclusion. That said, while the political parties themselves largely control and regulate the primaries, popular individual candidates and challengers with strong ideological leanings that appeal to a party’s base electorate sometimes prevail. In recent years Republican incumbents have been “primaried” by challengers more conservative than they. Likewise, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential elections, some Democrat incumbents are being threatened with challenges by more liberal or progressive elements within the party.

Incumbents wield another advantage over their challengers through the state power they have at their disposal.[2] Sitting congresspersons are responsible for constituent casework. Constituents routinely reach out to their congressperson for powerful support to solve complex problems, such as applying for and tracking federal benefits or resolving immigration and citizenship challenges.[3]

Incumbent members of Congress have paid staff, influence, and access to specialized information that can help their constituents in ways other persons cannot. And congresspersons are not shy about their constituent support. Often, they publicize their casework on their websites or create television advertisements that boast of their helpfulness. Election history demonstrates that this publicity is very effective in garnering voter support.

Incumbents also have franking privileges, which allows them a limited amount of free mail to communicate with the voters in their district. While these mailings may not be sent in the days leading up to an election–sixty days for a senator and ninety days for a House member–congressional representatives are able to build a free relationship with voters through them.[4] Moreover, incumbents have existing campaign organizations, while challengers must build new organizations from the ground up. Lastly, incumbents have more money in their war chests than most challengers.

Another incumbent advantage is gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines to advantage one political party’s chances to win a particular district over the other party. Every ten years, following the U.S. Census, the number of House of Representatives members allotted to each state is determined based on a state’s population. If a state gains or loses seats in the House, the state must redraw districts to ensure each district has a roughly equal number of citizens. States may also choose to redraw these districts at other times and for other reasons.[5] If the district is drawn to ensure that it includes a majority of Democratic or Republican party members within its boundaries, for instance, then candidates from those parties will have an advantage.

A cartoon that depicts gerrymandering. The outline of several voting districts is shown. The border of the districts is used as the backbone for a large fantastical creature.

Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the candidacy of Elbridge Gerry. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district as a dragon-line “monster.” Political opponents at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a blend of that word and Governor Gerry’s last name. (Credit: Boston Gazette on March 26, 1812)

Gerrymandering helps local legislative candidates and members of the House of Representatives, who win reelection over 90 percent of the time. Senators and presidents do not benefit from gerrymandering because they are not running in a district. Presidents and senators win states, so they benefit only from war chests and name recognition. This is one reason why senators running in 2014, for example, won reelection only 82 percent of the time.[6]

Local and National Elections

The concept of collective representation describes the relationship between Congress and the United States as a whole. That is, it considers whether the institution itself represents the American people, not just whether a particular member of Congress represents his or her district. Predictably, it is far more difficult for Congress to maintain a level of collective representation than it is for individual members of Congress to represent their own constituents. Not only is Congress a mixture of different ideologies, interests, and party affiliations, but the collective constituency of the United States is even more diverse. However, matching the diversity of opinions and interests in the United States with those in Congress would not necessarily work. Indeed, such an attempt could hinder Congress’ collective representation. Its rules and procedures require Congress to employ flexibility, bargaining, and concessions. Yet it is this flexibility and concessions, often interpreted as corruption, that drive the high public disapproval ratings of Congress.

The importance of publicizing constituent casework during campaigns supports the popular saying, “All politics is local.” This phrase, attributed to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA), asserts that the most important motivations directing voters are rooted in local concerns. In general, this is true. People naturally feel more driven by the things that affect them daily. Examples are the quality of the roads, availability of good jobs, and cost and quality of public education. Good senators and representatives understand this and seek to influence these issues for their constituents. This is an age-old strategy for success in office and elections.

Political scientists have taken note of some voting patterns that may challenge this common assumption, however. In 1960, political scientist Angus Campbell proposed the surge-and-decline theory to explain these patterns.[7]

Campbell noticed that since the Civil War, with the exception of 1934, the president’s party has consistently lost seats in Congress during the midterm elections.[8] Midterm elections occur because all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the senators come up for reelection every two years.

Campbell proposed that the reason was a surge in political stimulation during presidential elections, which contributes to greater turnout and brings in voters who ordinarily abstain. These voters, Campbell argued, tend to favor the party holding the presidency. In contrast, midterm elections witness the opposite effect. They are less stimulating and have lower turnout because less-active voters stay home. Campbell asserts this shift helps the party not currently occupying the presidency. During a presidential election year, members of Congress often experience the coattail effect, which gives members of a popular presidential candidate’s party an increase in popularity and raises their odds of retaining office.[9]

In contrast, midterm elections witness the opposite effect. They are less stimulating and have lower turnout because less-active voters stay home. Campbell asserts this shift helps the party not currently occupying the presidency.[10] During a midterm election year, however, the president’s party often is blamed for the president’s actions or inaction. Representatives and senators from the sitting president’s party are more likely to lose their seats during a midterm election year. Many recent congressional realignments, in which the House or Senate changed from Democratic to Republican control, occurred because of this reverse-coattail effect during midterm elections. The most recent example is the 2010 election, in which control of the House returned to the Republican Party after two years of a Democratic presidency.

In the decades since Campbell’s influential theory was published, a number of studies have challenged his conclusions.[11] Nevertheless, the pattern of midterm elections benefiting the president’s opposition has persisted.[12] Only in exceptional years has this pattern been broken: first in 1998 during President Bill Clinton’s second term and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, when exit polls indicated most voters opposed the idea of impeaching the president, and then again in 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the ensuing declaration of a “war on terror.”

The evidence does suggest that national concerns, rather than local ones, can function as powerful motivators at the polls. Consider, for example, the role of the Iraq War in bringing about a Democratic rout of the Republicans in the House in 2006 and in the Senate in 2008. Unlike previous wars in Europe and Vietnam, the war in Iraq was fought by a very small percentage of the population.[13] The vast majority of citizens were not soldiers, few had relatives fighting in the war, and most did not know anyone who directly suffered from the prolonged conflict. Voters in large numbers were motivated by the political and economic disaster of the war to vote for politicians they believed would end it.

An image of a group of people, several of whom are holding flags and signs. One of the signs reads

Wars typically have the power to nationalize local elections. What makes the Iraq War different is that the overwhelming majority of voters had little to no intimate connection with the conflict and were motivated to vote for those who would end it. (Credit: “Lipton sale”/Wikimedia Commons)

Congressional elections may be increasingly driven by national issues. Just two decades ago, straight-ticket, party-line voting was still rare across most of the country.[14] In much of the South, which began to vote overwhelmingly Republican in presidential elections during the 1960s and 1970s, Democrats were still commonly elected to the House and Senate. The candidates themselves and the important local issues, apart from party affiliation, were important drivers in congressional elections. This began to change in the 1980s and 1990s, as Democratic representatives across the region declined. The South is not alone; areas in the Northeast and the Northwest have grown increasingly Democratic. Indeed, the 2014 midterm election was the most nationalized election in many decades. Voters who favor a particular party in a presidential election are now much more likely to also support that same party in House and Senate elections than was the case just a few decades ago.

Questions to Consider

  1. What does Campbell’s surge-and-decline theory suggest about the outcome of midterm elections?

  2. Explain the factors that make it difficult to replace incumbents.

Terms to Remember

coattail effect–gives members of a popular presidential candidate’s party an increase in popularity and raises their odds of retaining office

collective representation–describes the relationship between Congress and the United States as a whole; whether the institution itself represents the American people, not just whether a particular member of Congress represents his or her district.

incumbents–current office holder

midterm election–occurs in the middle of a presidential term because all members of the House of Representatives and one-third of the senators come up for reelection every two years, including years in which there is no presidential election

surge-and-decline theory–a theory proposing that the surge of stimulation occurring during presidential elections subsides during midterm elections, accounting for the differences we observe in turnouts and results


  1. "Incumbent Advantage," http://www.opensecrets.org/overview/incumbs.php?cycle=2014 (May 15, 2016).
  2. David R. Mayhew. 1974. Congress: The Electoral Connection. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  3. R. Eric Petersen, "Casework in a Congressional Office: Background, Rules, Laws, and Resources," 24 November 2014, https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33209.pdf (May 1, 2016).
  4. Matthew E. Glassman, "Congressional Franking Privilege: Background and Current Legislation," Congressional Research Service, CRS Report RS22771, December 11, 2007, http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RS22771.pdf.
  5. League of United Latin American Citizens v. Perry, 548 U.S. 399 (2006).
  6. "Reelection Rates of the Years," https://www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/reelect.php from November 2, 2015.
  7. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  8. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  9. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  10. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  11. Angus Campbell. 1960. "Surge and Decline: A Study of Electoral Change." The Public Opinion Quarterly 24, No. 3: 397–418.
  12. "Midterm congressional elections explained: Why the president’s party typically loses," 1 October 2014, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/politics/elections/voting-patterns-midterm-congressional-elections-why-presidents-party-typically-loses (May 1, 2016).
  13. "A Profile of the Modern Military," 5 October 2011, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/10/05/chapter-6-a-profile-of-the-modern-military/ (May 1, 2016).
  14. Dhrumil Mehta and Harry Enten, "The 2014 Senate Elections Were the Most Nationalized In Decades," 2 December 2014, http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-2014-senate-elections-were-the-most-nationalized-in-decades/ (May 1, 2016); Gregory Giroux, "Straight-Ticket Voting Rises As Parties Polarize," Bloomberg, 29 November 2014, http://www.bloomberg.com/politics/articles/2014-11-29/straightticket-voting-rises-as-parties-polarize (May 1, 2016).