Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does It Really Hurt to Be out of Step?

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Does It Really Hurt to Be out of Step?

Article excerpt


Scholars have seemingly established that constituents hold "out of step" legislators electorally accountable. Empirically, however, such claims have not been based on measures placing districts and perceptions of legislators' preferences in the same space. We remedy this using the 2006 and 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies, and Aldrich and McKelvey's scaling procedure, finding that electoral success is roughly consistent with Downsian logic but not with the blanket statement that out-of-step incumbents are penalized. Voters punish out-of-step incumbents conditional on having a sufficiently more "in step" challenger. Effects are substantial, but so are incumbent advantages.


representation, congressional elections, legislatures

(ProQuest: ... denotes formula omitted.)

A fundamental issue concerning any political system is whether electoral constituents hold politicians account- able. Normatively, accountability is typically considered a virtue, although under specific conditions, it may result in pandering to voters and an insufficient weighting of minority welfare (Canes-Wrone, Herron, and Shotts 2001; Fox 2007; Maskin and Tirole 2004; Pratt 2005). Empirically, the principal issue regarding accountability is whether elected officials who have fallen "out of step" with their constituents-that is, members whose ideolog- ical preferences diverge significantly from those of the voters they represent-fare worse at the polls than do those who are better aligned, all else equal.1 While the existence of voter punishment would appear intuitive, that elected officials enjoy very high reelection rates (e.g., Ornstein, Mann, and Malbin 2008), yet seemingly change their ideological positions little over their careers despite great geographic mobility among voters, might suggest otherwise (Poole 2007; but see Kousser, Lewis, and Masket 2007).2 Put differently, incumbency advan- tages, coupled with a lack of voter information and the inherent abilities of those who have been previously elected, may overwhelm the importance of ideological correspondence. Although trying to assess accountability is a long-standing concern (e.g., Miller and Stokes 1963), there has been a renewed effort in recent years to estab- lish evidence that accountability works as posited (e.g., Canes-Wrone, Brady, and Cogan 2002).

At its root, investigating the existence and extent of accountability requires measuring constituent prefer- ences and induced incumbent preferences on the same dimension, in addition to controlling for other factors of incumbent success. However, placing elected officials and voters in the same ideological space, while simulta- neously finding an adequate number of cases for which representative and voter preferences can be confidently estimated at the unit of election, is a daunting task. As such, previous studies have used measures that are clearly on different scales, such as roll-call-based ADA or NOMINATE scores on one hand and district presidential votes on the other (but see Bafumi and Herron 2010; Stone and Simas 2010). Consequently, measurement error almost certainly plagues past efforts to gauge politician-voter correspondence. Hence, we need to view any results cautiously.

Fortunately for our purposes, recent advances in sur- vey technology can be combined with scaling techniques to measure the preferences of voters and elected officials in the same space. Per the former, scholars are increas- ingly using the Internet to develop surveys that generate a sufficiently large number of responses to measure the dis- tribution of political preferences and actions by election district. For example, the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which we principally utilize, surveys more than 30,000 voters and allows us to measure the distribution of attitudes and preferences within con- gressional districts.3 Given that surveys and scaling tech- niques have degrees of accuracy and face validity comparable with those associated with more traditional methods of ideological measurement (e. …

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