Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why Senate elections are more susceptible to weird effects, like Trump

Continuing on a theme, let's talk for a bit about the mechanics of legislative elections, and why Senate elections are more susceptible to minor, weird effects, like Trump, than House elections, creating the possibility of the chamber switching hands because one party nominated a... well... Trump.

First, in order for a seat to be in play, the partisan balance has to be relatively even.  You've probably heard that all of the House seats have been "gerrymandered" to be non-competitive.  Bullshit.  Usually, around 25% of House districts have the two presidential candidates separated by less than ten points in the two party vote.  Anyone who wants a citation can use my essay in Ellis & Nelson's Debating Reform.  Regardless, there are frequently enough evenly balanced states to flip the chamber.  But, it depends on which states are up in any given year.  This year, some of the battlegrounds are tough for Republicans.  Why?  2016.  That means all of the seats they won in 2010, with a big wave election are up.  They won, in a sense, too many seats because of the unique circumstances of 2010.  Those are hard to keep without those circumstances.  Now, things start to revert.

Next, in order for a seat to be in play, you need either an open seat (rare), or for the incumbent to be challenged by someone who isn't a nutjob.  Now, here's a plug for some research that really should have been published, but as far as I could tell, never got out, so here's at least something.  A colleague from grad school did a great dissertation on competitive primaries.  Casey Dominguez, now at University of San Diego.  She asked candidates to fill out a survey on why they ran, etc.  My personal favorite, who became a running joke among our cohort, kindly filled out the survey, and returned it.  With a large feather.  And a pad lock.  And no explanation.

Now and for all time, he shall be known as "lock and feather guy."  Anonymity and all, he can be known as nothing else anyway, but great story, right?

Lock and feather guy lost.  I know, you're shocked.  Here's something else that will shock you.  Lock and feather guy had never held elected office before.

Those two facts are related.  And they are related to the... weirdness.

Most challengers, if not as weird as lock and feather guy, are, shall we say, on that spectrum.  And they have never held elected office before.  And they lose.

And this confirms a key lesson that we all learned long ago from Gary C. Jacobson, who taught us everything we know about congressional elections with The Politics of Congressional Elections.

And you know what?  Senate incumbents are more likely to face strong challengers than House incumbents.  Why?  More desirable seat.  That leads to a closer match, which makes things easier to sway with weird stuff.

Like Trump.

Senate elections are closer than House elections.  That makes minor things more likely to switch the outcome.  And here comes Donald...


  1. More desirable seat AND it's the only "district" that perfectly overlaps with existing electoral districts that are, in most cases, term limited.

    We elect 750(ish) statewide executives. 2/3rds(ish) are elected in states that have term limits. Do the math. (Or, do the math if I had given you the actual numbers and their distributions, which I haven't because this is a comment on a blog post and not worth that much time)

    1. You wound me... But obviously not enough to make me do the math, because it's just a comment on a blog. But, I will nit-pick. Upward mobility. A lot of the stronger challengers in Senate races are House members, and that's a matter of district proportion. In a state with, say, ten districts, a House member's district is 1/10 of the state, but that can still be a "strong" challenger, relatively speaking, depending on circumstances. Yes, we can throw in Krasno's 9-point measure of challenger quality and a Governor is a better challenger, but, hey, this is just a blog thread, so who cares?

      Seriously, though, how many times did we nag Casey to try to get an article or something out of the lock-and-feather-guy anecdotes? It would have been great for PS.

    2. I had a comment. Then it disappeared.

      In a nutshell:
      -I'm just saying there are multiple factors.
      -We BOTH forgot to mention that states are inherently more balanced in partisan terms than smaller districts would be.

    3. I just addressed the partisan balance point slightly differently. The partisan vulnerability of the Senate depends on what is up in any given year. And this year means the GOP is defending what they won in 2010. Over-all, yes, states are less likely to be good burger meat (80-20) than a House district, but I got at the point in a different way.