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Fenno: Homestyle

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Fenno. 1978. Home style: House members in their districts.

In Brief

Fenno seeks to answer one overriding question: How does an elected representative's view of his/her constituency affect his or her political behavior? To answer this, he first identifies what an MC's (Member of Congress) goals are; second, he explains the various ways that an MC might view his or her constituency; and third, he shows how these views affect the MC's political behavior.

MCs have three goals: Re-election, power in Congress, and good public policy (p 137; see also Fenno 1977). This book is about how members adopt a "home style" to help them secure the first goal (re-election), which in turn makes attainment of the other goals possible. If members have the trust of their constituencies--and such trust is central to Fenno's story--then it will be easier for them to explain and justify the decisions that they make on Capitol Hill in pursuit of policy goals and power.

In explaining how MCs cultivate trust among their constituents, Fenno focuses on what representatives do in their districts rather than in Washington. He tries to identify the "home styles" that each MC uses to get re-elected as well as their perceptions of their constituency. Fenno argues that Congressmen view their constituencies in four shrinking concentric circles:

Fenno calls these the geographic, reelection, primary, and personal constituencies.

Place in the Literature

Fenno is following most directly from his early work (1973) and the classic work by Mayhew (1974), and draws heavily on Goffman's (1959) idea of the presentation of self to inform his theory.

Fenno argues against Lowi (1969) and Mills (1956) and others, who argue the Congress is held hostage by iron triangles, and is not responsive to the people.


Fenno accompanied several MCs as they traveled about their districts. Through this in-depth, qualitative experience, he draws conclusions inductively about the various home styles MCs employ.

The Argument

Four constituencies

MCs see the district in four concentric circles: the geographic constituency, the re-election constituency, the primary constituency, and the personal constituency. MCs have different strategies for each of these groups. Every MC has a strategy for who they are and how they fit in with the constituency. They seek a comfort level, but it takes some time to establish a relationship with constituents. This is one reason for the incumbency advantage: they have already invested the time and resources for this and challengers have not.

Home style

Home styles should be consistent and continually reinforced. An inconsistent home style will not produce a solid image to constituents. A home style has three components: presentation of self (following Goffman 1959), allocation of resources, and explanation of Washington activities.


The goal is to gain trust (56). There are three main strategies to gain trust: qualification, identification ("I am one of you"), and empathy ("I understand you and think like you do"). Again, trust is the key because it allows members leeway on the hill. If we think of it in principal-agent (P-A) terms, the P trusts that the A is not shirking because they share similar values. Since the A is "one of you," he will not lose touch. The P has selected the A wisely. Since the P trusts the A, he doesn't have to monitor so closely. So trust is useful for managing the P-A relationship from the standpoint of the agent.

Protectionist vs expansionist phases

There are two distinct career phases that MCs pass through, the expansionist and (later) protectionist phases. During the expansionist phase, they seek to expand their support and build trust within their district. But they do this only to a certain point, at which they stop expanding support for two reasons. First, they don't want to lose touch with their hard-core supporters by over-expanding. Second, with their reelection secured, they can spend their time pursuing other goals in Washington rather than continuing to expand support back home.

With the end of expansionism, MCs move into the protectionist phase. Even during the protectionist phase, MCs do not see themselves as secure. They always are aware of a potential challenge 5-10 years away. Bad things can happen occasionally, so MCs take care to win every time.

Constituency Feedback

Home style is a two-way communication process. MCs learn information that they need in order to be good agents in the process of soliciting support. MCs do not need to explain every vote to their constituents. However, they do need to have a plausible explanation available for every vote, since they never know which one they will be challenged on. Most feel they can survive one "bad" vote, but too many would hurt them seriously. Trust is crucial here.


Senators' Home Styles: Home styles are much less personal among senators for several reasons.

  1. Districts are bigger and harder to understand.
  2. Mass media is used more intensively (partly because districts are much bigger).
  3. With six year terms, some Senators do not constantly work the district.

Changes in home style over time

Fenno notes several changes that have affected home style since earlier in the 1970s:

  1. Bigger districts (harder to meet as many constituents);
  2. Society is more atomized (fewer social networks to meet constituents through);
  3. Society is more suburban;
  4. Fewer personal relationships.

These changes lead MCs to emphasize policy over personal relationships since personal relationships are harder to cultivate. Fenno expects these changes to decrease the incumbency advantage

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Fenno, Richard (author)American PoliticsElectionsCongress (U.S.)ResponsivenessIncumbency AdvantageElectoral Connection

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