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Fiorina: The case of the vanishing marginals

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.

Fiorina. 1977. The case of the vanishing marginals: The bureaucracy did it. APSR 71:177-81.


Place in Literature

Fiorina is not the first to attempt to resolve Mayhew's puzzle.

The Argument

As Mayhew (1974) pointed out, marginal districts are in decline, i.e. the incumbency advantage has grown. Fiorina attributes this change to the federal government's increased role. In brief:

  1. The federal government has become much more involved in our daily lives;
  2. It administers these new policies through an expanded bureaucracy;
  3. Bureaucracies sometimes make mistakes;
  4. Attempts to resolve these mistakes often meet inflexibility and unresponsiveness;
  5. So constituents turn to their representatives in Congress for help.
  6. For members of Congress (MCs), casework is "mostly profit: one makes many more friends than enemies."
  7. Thus, casework might be sufficient to help the MC win the votes of a few people who might otherwise have opposed them on policy or partisan grounds. And if casework explains as little as 5% of the vote, then it explains the entire incumbency advantage identified by Mayhew.

Further Implications

The drop in marginal districts was rapid. Fenno's (1977) argument may explain why. MCs tend to adopt a "home style" early in their careers and stick with it. The old MCs may not have adjusted their homestyle to reflect the new opportunities for casework. But the huge turnovers in the 1960s brought in many new MCs, who may have begun with a more service-oriented style--which then explains the rapid drop in marginals in the 1970s.

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Fiorina, Morris (author)ElectionsIncumbency AdvantageCongress (U.S.)BureaucracyElectoral Connection

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