Quarterly Journal of Political Science > Vol 17 > Issue 3

Out of Step and Still in Congress? Electoral Consequences of Incumbent and Challenger Positioning Across Time

Brandice Canes-Wrone, Princeton University, USA, bcwrone@princeton.edu , Michael R. Kistner, University of Houston, USA, mkistner@central.uh.edu
Suggested Citation
Brandice Canes-Wrone and Michael R. Kistner (2022), "Out of Step and Still in Congress? Electoral Consequences of Incumbent and Challenger Positioning Across Time", Quarterly Journal of Political Science: Vol. 17: No. 3, pp 389-420. http://dx.doi.org/10.1561/100.00019222

Publication Date: 20 Jul 2022
© 2022 B. Canes-Wrone and M. R. Kistner
Elections,  Congress,  Electoral behavior,  Government,  Legislatures,  Political parties
Electionsaccountabilitypartiesvoting behaviorCongress


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In this article:
Evidence on Congressional Accountability 
Downsian Candidate Accountability Across Time 
Considering Measurement and Identification Issues 
Differential Accountability 


Recent research suggests that the penalty congressional candidates pay for ideological extremism declined abruptly in 1994 when the House majority became competitive for the first time in decades. We reexamine congressional accountability in light of this evidence, first evaluating the centrality of 1994 as a turning point and then allowing that voters may not weigh incumbents’ and challengers’ positions equally. Several findings emerge. Even when the penalty for extremism is constrained to be equal for challengers and incumbents, accountability does not abruptly decline in 1994 but instead decreases gradually from 1980 through recent elections. Furthermore, once incumbent and challenger ideology are examined separately, the results on incumbents do not match those for challengers. Depending on the specification and ideology measure, incumbent accountability may stay similar, decrease, or even increase over time. By comparison, the relationship between challenger ideology and vote share consistently declines across electoral cycles. These results suggest that analyses treating incumbents and challengers identically will be prone to find decreased congressional accountability, even when the evidence on incumbents does not merit such a conclusion.