Predicting Challengers in State Supreme Court Elections: Context and the Politics of Institutional Design

Article excerpt

In this article, we answer two important questions about the role of challengers in elections to the states' highest courts: (1) under what conditions do incumbents draw challengers, and (2) do these same conditions influence whether the challengers entering these races have sufficient experience to pose a threat to the officeholders (i.e., are they quality challengers). While the factors related to each electoral contest and the forces characterizing the overall political climate of the state should affect the type of challenge, if any, we also expect institutions to matter. Specifically, factors governing the attractiveness of supreme court seats, as well as the formal means by which judicial elections are organized, all should serve to enhance or inhibit competition. In an analysis of all 146 partisan and nonpartisan elections to state supreme courts from 1988 through 1995, we find that competition from both inexperienced and experienced challengers is predictable from some basic information about the incumbents, the states, and the institutional context. Like legislators, judges can influence their chances of being challenged only to a limited degree. However, the states can increase or decrease competition to some extent by manipulating electoral system characteristics and a variety of factors that make supreme court seats more or less valuable. In fact, under certain scenarios, state supreme courts may be more democratic in character and function than is generally recognized or perhaps preferred.

With this research, we answer two important questions about the role of challengers in elections to the states' highest courts: (1) under what conditions do incumbents draw challengers, and (2) do these same conditions influence whether the challengers entering these races have sufficient experience to pose a serious threat to the current officeholders (i.e., are they quality challengers). These intriguing though straightforward questions have significant theoretical import for illuminating the complex relationship between democratic processes and political institutions. As studies of elections to many different types of offices have established, electoral competition forges observable linkages between citizens and government, enhancing the representative function (e.g., Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan 2002; Erikson 1978; Hall 1987, 1995; Miller and Stokes 1963). Among other things, incumbents chosen in competitive races are more likely to defer to their constituencies when casting votes on controversial issues rather than choosing policy alternatives that better reflect their personal preferences. Therefore, understanding electoral competition, and specifically how competition emerges in the first place, is directly relevant for delineating the precise mechanisms by which democratic processes induce accountability and generate public policies consistent with citizen preferences.

Moreover, studies of the United States House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and state legislatures all have established that quality challengers fare substantially better with voters than do their weaker counterparts (e.g., Abramowitz 1991; Jacobson 1989, 1999; Jacobson and Kernell 1983; Lublin 1994; Mann and Wolfinger 1980; Nicholson and Segura 1999; Squire 1989b). Quality challengers reduce the vote margins of incumbents and are substantially more likely than other types of challengers to win. Interestingly, this influence is present even when the effects of a host of other variables related to national and local politics, including campaign spending (Squire 1989b), are controlled. Also, these substantive results are robust across studies that use alternative measures of challenger quality. When measured as a dichotomy of whether the challenger has held elective office (e.g., Abramowitz 1988; Jacobson 1989), as separate dichotomies or ordinal scales based on challengers' personal characteristics and political experience (e. …