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Jacobson: The electoral origins of divided government

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.

Jacobson. 1990. The electoral origins of divided government.

In Brief

It is an argument against the notion, popular with Republicans, that the persistence of the divided government, with the Dems in Congress and Reps in the White House, is the result of a persistent incumbency advantage (in House elections) preventing an increasingly conservative electorate from being represented. It argues that the divided government is in fact, political. Republicans as a party are more suited for the Presidency and the Democrats are more suited for Congress.

Divided Government: A Common Event Nationwide

  1. Partisan voters have become increasingly rare and ticket splitting more common.
  2. Divided government has become a relatively common phenomenon in statewide offices as well--divided state governments have increased from 11 in 1946 to 32 in 1988.
  3. House elections themselves have become exceedingly heterogeneous across districts--the standard error of regression has more or less steadily risen throughout the period studied. Each election bears less and less resemblance to other districts' elections. (The trend is seen reversing itself in '80's, though)
  4. Why disaggregation?
    • Party incoherence and inadequacy of information cue--they all look the same to me!
    • Technology--more attention to the individuals.

Should we Blame Incumbency for Divided Government?

Evidence that we Should

  1. The disappearing marginals
  2. Increasing electoral value of incumbency between 1964 and 1966 elections, even though 1966 was BAD for Dems. (Gelman and King, 1989)

Evidence that we Should Not

  1. Not 'that' many old fogies in Congress--only 26 Dems in 1990 were elected before 1968.
  2. Republicans simply do poorly holding their open seats.
  3. Big vote swings--Incumbents with big margins aren't necessarily safe.

The Argument

Who Runs for Congress?

In Congressional elections, Republican challengers are generally of a lower quality (i.e. less politically experienced) than Democratic challengers. Three points:

  1. Uncontested elections are becoming rarer, but challengers still do poorly.
  2. Republican challengers (relatively speaking) to Democrats much weaker than Dems challenging GOPers--16.5 per cent of Dem incumbents face "quality" (i.e. experienced) GOP challengers, while 27 per cent of GOP challengers face quality Dem challengers for 1946-1988 period. Outside the South, the proportion of quality GOP challengers has grown increasingly smaller this period.
  3. The candidate quality in open seats has varied according to the party as well. Republicans generally field weaker candidates. They are stronger when they defend their seat, but Dems field stronger candidates when they challenge GOP seats--low likelihood of GOPers taking open seats away from Dems.

Why do Democrats Fare Better than Republicans?

Democrats win more Congressional races than Republicans do. As the previous section shows, this is partly because Democrats field better candidates than Republicans do. But Jacobson also takes time to dismiss other arguments about why Democrats might fare better than Republicans:

  1. Not incumbency advantage
  2. Not biased electoral system--GOP in fact got bonus seats until mid 1960's. (King and Gelman, 1989)
  3. Not gerrymandering--not that many seats could be deprived from GOP. (Abramowitz, 1983; Cain and Campagna, 1987)
  4. Not campaign finance
    • Fact: Dem incumbents do get an advantage.
    • But Dem incumbents get money precisely b/c they are better investments (i.e. better candidates) than GOP challengers.

So Why do we Get Divided Government?

Divided government occurs because voters have conflicting ideas about the two parties. These conflicting ideas lead them to prefer having Democrats in Congress but Republicans in the White House.

The logic is straightforward. Voters want budget cuts, but they don't want the cuts to affect their favorite government programs. Thus, they elect Republicans to the White House; the Republican reputation for fiscal conservatism means that GOP presidents can push national policy toward austerity. But voters simultaneously elect Democrats to the Congress; since Congress is in charge of the district's narrow interests, this helps ensure that the district's favorite programs won't be hurt by budget cuts.

Thus, voters want divided government, as it suits their actual policy preferences.

A Prediction

"A Democratic Presidency is also the only scenario offering Republicans much hope of making substantial gains, let alone winning majorities, in Congress during the remainder of the century."

But does this prediction entail the possibility of divided government between a Democratic President and a Republican Congress, as happened in 1994

Research by the same authors

Research on similar subjects


Jacobson, Gary (author)American PoliticsDivided GovernmentCongress (U.S.)PartiesVeto PlayersElectoral Connection

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