Mainstream Assumptions Are Not Correct
THE DEATH OF POLITICAL MYTHS
(Publisher's note -- we obtained permission from one of the authors to share this remarkable summary of findings with you.)
by Neil Wollman, Leonard Williams and Abigail Fuller In this decade, post-election analyses by politicians and the media typically have concluded that the American electorate votes for ideological moderation. The 1994 disaster for Democrats in the U.S. House, for example, was said to be a rejection of liberalism. Republican House losses in 1996 were interpreted as punishment of Gingrich conservative extremists. And in 1998, commentators--focusing on key congressional and gubernatorial races--again made the voters' preference for moderate candidates the theme of the day.
But a closer examination reveals a quite different story. Our previous analysis of the 1994 election revealed that it was more moderate Democratic incumbents, not liberal ones, who were more likely to lose (Roll Call, 4/1/96). And, though the effect was less pronounced, conservative Republican incumbents were less likely to lose in 1996 than were moderate ones (Roll Call, 12/12/96). For 1998, we found that ideological extremists of both parties lost at the same rate as their more moderate colleagues.
Taking a still closer look at all House elections in the 1990s--the Clinton years--we decided now to ask whether incumbents only did well where their political ideology matched that of their districts. (Both incumbent ideology and district ideology were classified as either conservative, moderately conservative, moderately liberal, or liberal.)
We found that in all four categories of district, for Republicans and for Democrats, incumbents who didn't match their district ideology were no more likely to lose than those who did match (e.g., a conservative Republican running in a moderately liberal district). The one exception to our generalization is that liberal and moderately liberal Democrats did not do as well as conservative and moderately conservative Democrats in conservative districts. These results refute another political truism, namely, that those who deviate from the ideology of their district will necessarily lose. Even though many House incumbents match their districts in ideology, that fit is not the reason for their continued success, since defeated incumbents were nearly always as likely to match their districts as were re-elected ones.
These findings are seen vividly when examining those incumbents who are most mismatched-- conservative Democrats and Republicans who ran in liberal districts, and liberal Democrats and Republicans who ran in conservative districts. Though these situations are limited, in the twenty-one cases of this sort from 1992-1998, such incumbents still won three quarters of the time.
These results hold for the 1992-1998 House elections combined and for each of those election years individually. Our analyses contradict (a) the truism that an incumbent's ideology must match that of his or her district, (b) the maxim that, in most cases, an incumbent's best hope for electoral success is to be a centrist, and (c) the media's mantra that elections in the 1990s mark the triumph of moderation. (As our previous work showed, an extremist advantage appears in certain contexts; while looking at the 90s as a whole and controlling for a district's ideology weakens the evidence for an extremist advantage, the study still refutes the notion of any moderate advantage.)
One can be a liberal, conservative, or moderate, and still win, typically, over 90% of the time, no matter the district. (The one exception is liberal and moderately liberal Democrats, whose success rate falls to 80-85% in moderately conservative districts, and to the 60-70% range in conservative districts.) So be wary come November 2000, if pundits again start making generalizations about the death of liberalism, conservatism, or--who knows--moderation.
For information on the full study, contact the authors, three professors at Manchester College, located in North Manchester, Indiana. Neil Wollman, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, has written on the application of psychological principles to the political process (219-982-5346, NJWollman@Manchester.edu). Leonard Williams, Ph.D., Professor of Political Science, has published work in the areas of political ideology and campaign advertising (219-982-5335, LAWilliams@Manchester.edu). And Abigail Fuller, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, has worked in the area of social movements (219-982-5009, AAFuller@Manchester.edu).
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