Nationalization and the Incumbency Advantage

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18oveklKYTxwae/input 883696PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919883696Political Research QuarterlyCarson et al.
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 156 –168
Nationalization and the
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Incumbency Advantage
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919883696
Jamie L. Carson1, Joel Sievert2 , and Ryan D. Williamson3
Legislative scholars have investigated both the growth in the incumbency advantage since the early 1970s and its decline
in recent decades, but there are several unanswered questions about this phenomenon. In this paper, we examine the
incumbency advantage across a much wider swath of history to better understand its connection with changing levels
of electoral nationalization. Based on an analysis of U.S. House elections extending back to the antebellum era, we find
that the incumbency advantage fluctuates in predictable ways over time with changes in nationalization, which can be a
product of both institutional and political conditions. We also demonstrate that the increased influence of local forces
in congressional elections may not be strictly necessary nor sufficient for the existence of an incumbency advantage.
Congress, incumbency advantage, nationalization, elections
Since the early 1970s, students of congressional elections
believe it is important to consider this longer period
have investigated the incidence and growth of the incum-
because nationalized elections, as we and other scholars
bency advantage in Congress. What began as an endeavor
define them, are not a new phenomenon. Elections dur-
to identify why incumbents won more often than their
ing the mid- to late nineteenth century, for instance, were
challengers (see, e.g., Erikson 1971; Mayhew 1974) has
often highly partisan and nationalized affairs as a result
evolved into a series of more complex analyses that
of electoral institutions that were used at the time (see
examine what incumbents are doing well (Cox and Katz
Burnham 1965; Engstrom and Kernell 2005, 2014).
1996; Gelman and King 1990) versus what challengers
There are, of course, important differences between
are doing poorly or not at all (Jacobson 1989; Jacobson
the electoral politics of the nineteenth century and today.
and Kernell 1983). More recently, scholars have argued
During the nineteenth century, the strong linkage between
that the incumbency advantage has begun to systemati-
presidential and subnational voting, a common measure
cally decline during the past two decades (Erikson 2016;
of nationalization (Brady, D’Onofrio, and Fiorina 2000;
Jacobson 2015). Our analysis builds on this classic body
Erikson 2016; Jacobson 2015), was a result of electoral
of work that has important implications for representation
institutions, namely the party ballot (Engstrom and
and finds that incumbents have always been advantaged
Kernell 2005, 2014). In contrast, the nationalization of
over their challengers since at least the early nineteenth
the past few decades is believed to be a function of the
century. The size of this benefit, however, fluctuates in
decisions made by, and attitudes among, individual voters
predictable ways over time with changes in the extent to
(see Abramowitz and Webster 2016; Hopkins 2018;
which elections are “nationalized.”
Jacobson 2015). As a result, we believe it is possible for
By nationalization, we mean the phenomenon in
nationalization to have distinct causes in different eras,
which top-down forces, such as presidential vote choice
but similar political effects on elections. These specific
or partisanship, inform voter’s decisions in congressio-
differences aside, the return of nationalized electoral con-
nal elections rather than candidate-specific attributes or
ditions provides a unique opportunity to analyze changes
local forces. While there are alternative ways to define
nationalization, our definition is consistent with other
recent studies on nationalization in congressional elec-
University of Georgia, Athens, USA
2Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
tions (Abramowitz and Webster 2016; Hopkins 2018;
3Auburn University, AL, USA
Jacobson 2015; Sievert and McKee 2019). What sets our
discussion apart from prior research, however, is that we
Corresponding Author:
Joel Sievert, Department of Political Science, Texas Tech University,
explore the impact of nationalization across a wider
113 Holden Hall, P.O. Box 41015, Lubbock, TX 79409, USA.
swath of history compared with previous work. We

Carson et al.
in elections across a much wider swath of history. By
greater correspondence between vote choice across dif-
evaluating the advantages that accrue to incumbents dat-
ferent offices is an important dimension of nationaliza-
ing back to the 1840s, we can gain important new insights
tion because it suggests that “voters use the same criteria
not only about both nationalization and the incumbency
to choose candidates across the federal system.”
advantage but also congressional elections more broadly.
Second, and relatedly, incumbents benefited from
For instance, candidate entry and exit decisions, behavior
lower levels of party loyalty among the electorate. Mann
within the House of Representatives, patterns of cam-
and Wolfinger (1980) found that partisan defection was
paign contributions, and many other factors can be influ-
far more likely among voters affiliated with the challeng-
enced, either directly or indirectly, by the level of
er’s party than it was among an incumbent’s co-partisans.
nationalization (Abramowitz and Webster 2016; Jacobson
Today, however, congressional vote choice is now highly
2015; Thomsen 2017).
correlated with party identification (Abramowitz and
Although our analysis suggests incumbents have
Webster 2016; Jacobson 2015). These changes have con-
always enjoyed electoral advantages in different political
tributed to an increased nationalization of congressional
eras, the magnitude of the incumbency advantage fluctu-
elections, which has led to incumbents who seek office
ates in predictable ways over time with changes in both
today enjoying no more of an advantage than their coun-
institutional and political conditions. Indeed, our findings
terparts running in the 1950s. Indeed, incumbents now
offer evidence to support the idea that incumbents enjoy
have a harder time winning in districts that lean toward
at least some baseline advantage across a large variety of
the opposite party as a result of individuals’ tendency to
institutional designs and norms. It may, therefore, be the
vote a straight ticket (Jacobson 2015; Jacobson and
case that an electoral system based on single-member dis-
Carson 2020).
tricts will always afford some advantage to the incum-
How do we reconcile claims about a reduced incum-
bent. Finally, we do find some notable differences across
bency advantage with the continued electoral success of
time in the types of factors explaining the magnitude and
incumbents? We believe the answer requires an explora-
variation in the incumbency advantage.
tion of one specific factor—the competing strength of
national versus local political forces—that has affected
Incumbency Advantage in Congress
election outcomes over the past two centuries.
Contemporary congressional elections are not the first
Students of American politics as well as casual observers
instance in which we have observed high rates of incum-
routinely note that incumbent members of Congress
bent reelection along with more limited candidate-specific
retain their positions irrespective of factors that would
effects of incumbency. While most incumbent members of
seem to threaten their job security. Even when faced with
Congress who run for reelection have won since at least
low institutional approval, a seeming inability to enact
the early nineteenth century (Carson and Sievert 2018),
meaningful or timely legislation, and strong partisan
incumbents did not always receive an electoral boost on
tides, it is not uncommon for 90% or more of representa-
Election Day in earlier historical periods (Carson and
tives to get reelected (Jacobson and Carson 2020). The
Roberts 2013). The common thread linking the earlier
ability of incumbents to outperform these circumstances
period with today is that both were instances in which
has arguably spurred more discussion within the congres-
elections were highly nationalized and voter’s partisan
sional elections literature than any other issue to date.1
loyalty was high (Burnham 1965; Engstrom and Kernell
Several recent studies, however, contend that the
2005). Our focus on nationalization is not meant to imply
incumbency advantage is considerably smaller than it
that other factors cannot potentially enhance or diminish
once was (Abramowitz and Webster 2016; Erikson 2016;
the incumbency advantage or perhaps even trump the
Jacobson 2015; LeVeck and Nail 2016; Sievert and
effect of nationalization in specific instances. Instead, we
McKee 2019). Most notably, Jacobson (2015) illustrates
argue that the waxing and waning of nationalization
that the electoral returns to incumbency have been in a
accounts for fluctuations in the effect of incumbent mem-
steady decline since the 1980s. According to Jacobson,
ber status over time,...

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