Selected Progress Reports

Danielle Thomsen, Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University, “Ideological Moderates Won’t Run: How Candidate Emergence Contributes to Partisan Polarization in Congress.” Grant awarded in 2014. Progress reported, August 2016.

Partisan polarization has been one of the most prominent topics in congressional scholarship over the past decade. The distance between the two parties in Congress has continued to grow with nearly each election cycle, and partisan polarization is now at a record high (Poole and Rosenthal 2007). Those in the ideological middle have all but vanished from office, and Congress is currently characterized by what Bafumi and Herron (2010) call “leapfrog representation,” with ideological extremists being replaced by other extremists.

This project improves our understanding of partisan polarization by examining ideological changes in the makeup of congressional candidates from 1980 to 2012. I used the Dirksen Congressional Research Grant to hire undergraduate research assistants. They collected data of all U.S. House candidates from the America Votes series and merged them with Bonica’s (2014) ideology estimates. The dataset includes whether the candidate won or lost the primary and/or general election and his/her percentage of the vote. This dataset first allowed me to analyze changes in the congressional candidate pool over time. I found that the percentage of moderates in the candidate pool steadily declined during this thirty-year period. Conservative Democrats like John Tanner and liberal Republicans like Olympia Snowe now comprise less than five percent of the congressional candidates on the ballot.

The dataset also allowed me to examine the relationship between candidate ideology and victory patterns. I found that moderates are less likely to win the primary and more likely to win the general, although the substantive impact of ideology is relatively small compared to other variables like incumbency and campaign receipts. Lastly, the dataset includes additional variables, such as gender, which enabled me to analyze, for example, whether ideology has a different impact on the victory rates of male and female candidates. Contrary to the gender and politics literature, the findings suggest that ideologically similar men and women are equally likely to win the primary and general election. Ideology does not have different effects on the victory rates of male and female candidates.

Scholars have focused on mass-level and institutional-level explanations for partisan polarization in Congress, but little attention has been given to the choices voters have when they go to the polls. This dataset on congressional candidates, which was made possible by the Dirksen Congressional Research Grant, has enabled us to more fully understand historical changes in patterns of candidate entry during this time period as well. Some of the findings will be published in my book, Opting Out of Congress: Partisan Polarization and the Decline of Moderate Candidates (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press). Other results have been included in articles that are currently in progress or under revision at political science journals.

Eric Radezky, Rutgers University, “Home Style in the 21st Century.” Grant awarded in 2014. Progress reported March 2016

Building on the pioneering work of Richard Fenno’s Home Style (1978), this project explores how Members of Congress present themselves to their constituencies in the second decade of the 21st century. Using Fenno’s ethnographic methodology, I traveled with seven sitting members of the House in 2013 and 2014. My experiences during these travels confirms several of Fenno’s most enduring findings, including concentric circles of a constituency, expansionist and protectionist stages of a member’s career, and the importance of member fit with the district.

In addition, my work reveals that modern members of the House must decide whether or not they want to present themselves as partisans to their constituents. This decision is based on two key questions: is the member’s district dominated by one party; and does the member feel comfortable with a partisan presentational style? If the district favors one party over the other, the member is free to adopt a partisan style, which is characterized by frequent bashing of the opposite party when addressing constituents. If the district is not dominated by one party, the member is constrained and cannot adopt such a style. However, some members who are free to choose a partisan style do not do so out of personal preference.

I also find that anger over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) unites Republican members and their constituents unlike any other issue. My study includes three Republicans, one who uses a partisan presentational style, one who is constrained and cannot use that style and one who is free to choose the partisan style but simply chooses not to do so. Despite these differences, all three Republicans criticize the ACA as an economic deterrent, and each of their most important constituencies responds well to this argument.

Finally, I compare and contrast several of my subjects with several of Fenno’s. In one comparison, I explore how the passage of time has affected representation over three generations of representatives in a geographic district. There, the major change is the rise of a new dominant ethnicity, yet the keys to successful constituent relations in this district are remarkably stable over a period of 40 years. In another comparison, I examine the roles of two African American members. Not surprisingly, black constituents in 2013 have different expectations of their African American representative than what Fenno found in the 1970s. The relationships of these members with their local Democratic Party bosses are also markedly different. In a final comparison, I explore some of the factors that lead members to retire. Sometimes retirement is by choice, a chance to pursue other interests or to spend one’s twilight years with family. Other times retirement is forced on members.

Ethnographic research is expensive due to the travel involved, and several of my seven subjects would not be included in this study were it not for support from the Dirksen Congressional Center. The addition of those members greatly increased the scope of this project and led to several of the conclusions described here.

Alison Craig, “Cue-Taking in Congress: Interest Group Signals from Dear Colleagues.” Grant awarded in 2013. Progress reported March 2015.

We would like to thank you for the Dirksen Center’s support of our research project, “Cue-Taking in Congress: Interest Group Signals from Dear Colleagues,” and update you on the progress made since receiving a Congressional Research Award in 2013.

The support from the Dirksen Center allowed us to hire a team of undergraduate research assistants who hand-coded nearly 5,000 Dear Colleague letters. The resulting data are being used in several ongoing projects that promise to shed new light on the understudied area of collaboration in Congress. Our initial project uncovers new evidence of how powerful interest groups are able to affect the legislative process by endorsing legislation, which is particularly effective early in the legislative process. This paper was presented at both the 2013 American Political Science Association conference and the 2014 Midwest Political Science Association Conference and will be submitted to a top political science journal in the coming months.

The data were also used to support Alison’s successful application for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and a currently pending National Science Foundation Political Science grant application to further our research on collaboration in Congress. Alison has used the data for her own work on collaboration and legislative success in the House of Representatives, which finds that members who collaborate more with colleagues find greater success in building support for their legislation. She has presented her project at the 2014 Midwest Political Science Association Conference, the 2014 Political Networks Conference, the 2014 Political Methodology Conference and the 2014 American Political Science Association Conference. Her dissertation will build on this research, using the Dear Colleague data collected to study how members of Congress benefit from collaborating with colleagues, who collaborates with whom and how collaboration shapes the behavior of Congress as a whole.

Thank you again for your support. The Dirksen Center’s funding has been invaluable to us in our research and in addition to our current work, we expect this unique data will be used in many more projects in years to come.