Congressional elections, and elections in the United States in general, are centered more on candidates than are elections in other modern industrialized democracies. Why is this the case, and how does it affect the conduct of congressional elections? In this chapter we discuss the candidate-centered U.S. election system and explain how the Constitution, election laws, and the political parties form the system’s institutional framework. We also explain how the nation’s political culture and recent developments in technology have helped this system flourish.
Other important topics covered involve the political setting, or context. The political setting in a given election year has a substantial influence on electoral competition and, ultimately, the potential for turnover in Congress. It includes some predictable factors, such as the decennial redrawing of House districts; some highly likely occurrences, such as the wide-scale reelection of incumbents; and transient, less predictable phenomena, such as congressional scandals, acts of nature or terrorism, and economic upheavals. The setting in a given election year or district affects the expectations and behavior of potential candidates; the individuals who actually run for Congress; the political parties, interest groups, and others that help finance campaigns; and, of course, voters.
The Candidate-Centered Campaign
In contemporary U.S. congressional elections, candidates, not political parties, are the major focus of campaigns, and candidates, not parties, bear the ultimate responsibility for election outcomes. These characteristics of congressional elections are striking when viewed from a comparative perspective. In most democracies, political parties are the principal contestants in elections, and campaigns almost always focus on national issues, ideology, and party programs and accomplishments. In the United States, parties no longer run congressional campaigns, as they did in the era of party-centered campaigns, and only rarely do parties become the main focus of elections. Instead, candidates run their own campaigns, and parties and interest groups contribute money and other resources to
some of them. Parties and groups also may advertise or mobilize voters on behalf of candidates. A comparison of the terminology routinely used to describe elections in the United States with that used in Great Britain more than hints at the differences. In the United States, candidates are said to run
for Congress, and they do so with or without party help. In Britain, by contrast, candidates are said to stand
for election to Parliament, and their party runs most of the campaign. The difference in terminology only slightly oversimplifies reality.
Unlike candidates for national legislatures in most other democracies, candidates in the United States are largely self-selected rather than recruited by party organizations. Candidates must earn the right to run under their party’s label by winning a participatory primary, caucus, or convention, or by scaring off all opposition. Only after they have secured their party’s nomination are major-party candidates ensured a place on the general election ballot. Until then, few congressional candidates receive significant assistance from party committees, although some may get help from party members in Congress and groups allied with the candidate’s party. Independent and minor-party candidates can get on the ballot in other ways—usually by paying a registration fee or collecting several thousand signatures from district residents.
In most other countries, the nomination process begins with a small group of party activists pursuing the nomination by means of a “closed” process that allows only formal, dues-paying party members to select the candidate.1
The American system amplifies the input of primary voters—and, in a few states, activists—who participate in caucuses or conventions, but these other systems respond more so to the input of party members and leaders in and out of government.
The need to win a party nomination forces congressional candidates to assemble their own campaign organizations, formulate their own election strategies, and conduct their own campaigns. The images and issues they convey to voters in trying to win the nomination carry over to the general election. The choices of individual candidates and their advisers have a greater impact on election outcomes than do the activities of party organizations and other groups.
The candidate-centered nature of congressional elections has evolved in recent years as political parties and interest groups, including many based in Washington, DC, have used independent media campaigns and coordinated grassroots campaigns involving sophisticated voter targeting and outreach efforts to communicate with and mobilize voters in competitive races. However, the basic structure of the system remains intact. That structure has a significant impact on virtually every aspect of campaigning, including who decides to run, the types of strategies and tactics candidates employ, and the resources available to candidates. It affects the decisions and activities of party organizations; interest groups, including political
action committees (PACs), super PACs, and other entities they use to influence elections; political activists and individual donors; and the journalists who cover electoral politics. It also has substantial effects on how citizens make their voting decisions and the activities that successful candidates perform once they are elected to Congress. Finally, the candidate-centered nature of the congressional election system affects the reforms those in power are willing to consider.
The Institutional Framework
In designing a government to prevent the majority from depriving the minority of its rights, the framers of the U.S. Constitution created a system of checks and balances to prevent any one official or element of society from amassing too much power. Three key features of the framers’ blueprint have profoundly influenced congressional elections: the separation of powers, bicameralism, and federalism. These aspects of the Constitution require members of the House of Representatives, senators, and the president to be chosen by different methods and constituencies. House members were, and continue to be, elected directly by the people. Senators were originally chosen by their state legislatures but have been selected in statewide elections since the passage of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913. Presidents always have been formally selected by the Electoral College, though its role changed drastically during the first contested presidential election in 1796. The means for filling state and local offices were omitted from the Constitution, but candidates for these positions were, and continue to be, elected independently of members of Congress.
Holding elections for individual offices separates the political fortunes of members of Congress from those of other members and other officials. A candidate for the House can win during an election year in which his or her party suffers a landslide defeat in the race for the presidency, experiences severe losses in the House or Senate, or finds itself surrendering its hold over neighboring congressional districts, the state legislature, the governor’s mansion, and various local offices. The system encourages House, Senate, state, and local candidates to communicate issues and themes they perceive to be popular in their districts, even when their messages differ from those advocated by their party’s leader. It does relatively little to encourage teamwork in campaigning or governance. In 2006 a considerable number of Republican candidates distanced themselves from the Republican president, George W. Bush, who had very low job approval ratings, by publicly opposing the core of his legislative agenda. In both 2010 and 2014, Democratic President Barack Obama witnessed some of his party’s congressional candidates exhibit similar behavior on the campaign trail. The same was true of President Donald Trump in 2018. Trump’s low
public approval ratings, as well as some Republicans’ disagreement with his positions on immigration and other policies, concerns about his confrontational leadership style, and disgust with his personal behavior, led some members of the party to break ranks with the president. Among them was two-term representative Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), who criticized Trump for using “a divide and conquer strategy” harmful to American democracy.2
Such opposition would be considered unacceptable under a parliamentary system of government, with its party-focused elections, but it is entirely consistent with the expectations of the Constitution’s framers. As James Madison wrote in Federalist no. 46,
A local spirit will infallibly prevail … in the members of Congress…. Measures will too often be decided according to their probable effect, not on the national prosperity and happiness, but on the prejudices, interests, and pursuits of the governments and people of the individual States.
When congressional candidates differ from their party’s presidential nominee or national platform on major issues, they seek political cover not only from the Constitution but also from state party platforms, local election manifestos, or fellow party members with whom they share issue positions.
Of course, congressional candidates usually adopt national issue positions held by other party candidates for the House, Senate, or presidency. In 1932 most Democrats embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt’s call for an activist government to battle the Great Depression. In 2010 and 2014, most Republican candidates embraced a national anti-Obama, antigovernment message that focused on rising unemployment, lost retirement savings, falling home prices, corporate bailouts, and dissatisfaction with the Affordable Care Act. Most Democratic incumbents responded by directing voters’ attention to local issues and their own records. Similarly, large numbers of Democratic challengers and open-seat candidates distanced themselves from Obama. In 2018, the shoe was on the other foot. Public disapproval of Trump and the performance of the federal government, combined with discomfort over the president’s remarks about women and minorities as well as his policies on health care, immigration, and other issues, encouraged many Republican politicians to try to direct voters’ attention to local concerns.
Federal and state laws further contribute to the candidate-centered nature of elections. Originally, federal law regulated few aspects of congressional elections, designating only the number of representatives a state was entitled to elect. States held congressional elections at different times, used different methods of election, and set different qualifications for voters. Some states used multimember at-large districts, a practice that awarded each party a share of congressional seats proportional to its share of the statewide popular vote; others elected their House members in odd-numbered
years, which minimized the ability of presidential candidates to pull House candidates of their own party into office on their coattails. The financing of congressional campaigns also went virtually unregulated for most of the nation’s history.
Over the years, Congress and the states passed legislation governing the election of House members that further reinforced the candidate-centered nature of congressional elections at the expense of parties. The creation of geographically defined, single-member, winner-take-all districts was particularly important in this regard. These districts, mandated by the Apportionment Act of 1842, made it necessary for individual candidates to build locally based electoral coalitions. Such districts give no rewards to candidates who have come in second, even if their party has performed well throughout the state or in neighboring districts.3
Thus, candidates belonging to the same party have little incentive to work together or to run a party-focused campaign. Under the multimember district or general ticket systems that existed in some states prior to the act—and that continue to be used in most of Western Europe—members of parties that finish lower than first place may receive seats in the legislature. Candidates have strong incentives to run cooperative, party-focused campaigns under these systems because their electoral fortunes are bound together.
The timing of congressional elections also helps to produce a candidate-centered system. Because the dates are fixed, with House elections scheduled biennially and roughly one-third of the Senate up for election every two years, many elections are held when there is no burning issue on the national agenda. If an election cycle occurs when there are few salient national issues to capture voters’ attention, House and Senate candidates base their campaigns on local issues or their qualifications for holding office. In an election where national concerns exert a greater impact on voters than local considerations, as has been the case in many recent elections, virtually all candidates must confront the broader national agenda.4
Nevertheless, even in these nationalized elections the outcomes of most congressional races revolve around the qualifications of the candidates and the quality of their campaigns.
In contrast, systems that do not have fixed election dates, including most in Europe, tend to hold elections that are more national in focus and centered on political parties. The rules regulating national elections in these systems require that elections be held within a set time frame, but the exact date is left open. Elections may be called by the party in power at a time of relative prosperity and when its leaders are confident they can maintain or enlarge their parliamentary majority. Elections also may be called when a critical problem divides the nation and the party in power is forced to call a snap election because its members in parliament are unable to agree on a policy for dealing with the crisis. Compared to congressional elections, which are often referenda on the performance of individual
officeholders and their abilities to handle local concerns, these elections focus almost exclusively on national conditions and the performance of the party in power.
Because the boundaries of congressional districts rarely match those of statewide or local offices, and because terms for the House, the Senate, and many state and local offices differ from one another, a party’s candidates often lack incentives to work together. House candidates consider the performance of their party’s candidates statewide or in neighboring districts to be a secondary concern, just as the election of House candidates is usually not of primary importance to candidates for state or local office. In some realms of campaigning, such as fundraising, recruiting volunteers, and attracting news coverage, members of the same party compete for limited resources. Differences in election boundaries and timing also encourage a sense of parochialism in party officials similar to that of their candidates. Cooperation among party organizations can be achieved only by persuading local, state, and national party leaders that it is in their mutual best interest. Cooperation is often heightened during presidential election years, when the presidential contest dominates the political agenda and boosts voter turnout. Elections that precede or follow the census also are characterized by increased cooperation because politicians at many levels of government focus on the imminent redrawing of election districts or on preserving or wresting control of new districts or those that have been significantly altered.
Although the seeds for candidate-centered congressional election campaigns were sown by the Constitution and election laws, not until the middle of the 20th century did the candidate-centered system firmly take root. Prior to the emergence of this system, during a period often called the “golden age” of political parties, party organizations played a major role in most election campaigns, including many campaigns for Congress. Local party organizations, often referred to as “old-fashioned political machines,” had control over the nomination process, possessed a near-monopoly over the resources needed to organize the electorate, and provided the symbolic cues that informed the election decisions of most voters. The key to their success was their ability to command the loyalties of large numbers of individuals, many of whom were able to persuade friends and neighbors to support their party’s candidates. Not until the demise of the old-fashioned machine and the introduction of new campaign technology did the modern, candidate-centered system finally blossom.5
Reforms intended to weaken political machines accelerated the development of the candidate-centered system. One such reform was the Australian ballot, adopt...