Back when I was in high school I became fascinated with Congressional elections. I understand that this is not a normal interest for high school aged kids, but it seemed as though I was living near one of the most interesting districts in the entire nation; the 19th District of New York. Republican Sue Kelly held the seat for most of my youth and before her was another Republican, Hamilton Fish. The district was moderately red, claiming West Point as its most prized possession. However, in 2006 Sue Kelly was unseated by Democratic activist and former singer, John Hall. Mr. Hall was a relative newcomer and Kelly’s loss, while very close, was an upset. John Hall held on to the district until the 2010 election when he was unseated by the Republican challenger, Nan Hayworth. The district could not seem to make up its mind.
So I immediately thought the 19th District was the only district experiencing the “yo-yo” effect. Especially after reading scholars like Mayhew who wrote off Congressional elections as the incumbent’s game to lose. After some digging into other districts and seeing the large seat changeovers in 2006, 2008, and 2010, I realized that the 19th District of New York is not the only district exhibiting this behavior. What is really going on in House elections? Are these districts just flukes?
I did some research and met with some Congressional Election forecasters down in D.C. and tried to get their opinion on the matter. Back in 1973 Mayhew wrote “the House seat swing is a phenomenon of fast declining amplitude and therefore of fast declining significance.” Was he wrong? I find it difficult to challenge a giant in the field such as Mayhew, but the competitive element of Congressional elections needs to be reevaluated given the latest trends.
My paper will conduct this reassessment. I will first explain how House elections are now more competitive than before. I will then explore the reasons why this may be. I am going to go beyond merely looking at the House seat changeover statistics because I think competition is not necessarily a numbers game. We can all attest that the media has been captivated by the last two mid-term elections and I don’t see the craze slowing down for this next one. The American people are realizing that every voice in Washington matters and so their vote matters. Competition is no longer just about voting margins between opposing parties, but about primary stand-offs within the parties, voter turn-out, the amount of money spent and the media attention collected. These factors and more will be used as measurements of Congressional competitiveness.
I won’t completely discount the incumbency advantage. There are still elections that will be dominated by one party regardless of the changing tides, but there is something to be said for the current behavior…and I am going to try to say it. I look forward to working with you all and reading about your interesting topics.