The House’s Competitiveness Problem… or Lack Thereof
Nathan Gonzales at Roll Call asks: “Are there really fewer competitive House districts than ever before?”
The very short answer is “yes.” Today, there are fewer competitive districts than ever before. The trend is visible over the past 20 years but it is much more dramatic if we look at the past 50, or even 100, years of House elections. David Mayhew first pointed this out in 1974, illustrating that there were fewer competitive House races between 1956 and 1972. Based on a variety of data, that trend began well before 1956 (really somewhere after 1882) and since then, it has not changed a great deal.
In the 1800s House turnover averaged over 45-percent per election. In fifteen of those elections, the House turnover exceeded 50-percent. In other words, there were more new members than there were old. However, that trend declined quickly in the 1880s. After 1882 House turnover never again eclipsed 50-percent turnover.
Since then that trend has only continued. For example, incumbent reelection jumped from the mid to low 80-percent range in the late 1940s to above 95-percent for a stretch in the early 2000s (Abramowitz, Alexander, and Gunning 2006). It is unsurprising that marginal districts also declined over this period. Competitive seats, often described as races won by less than 55% of the vote, decreased along with semi-competitive seats, or races won by less than 60% of the vote.
The same trend is visible in presidential voting. Congressional districts are becoming more lopsided toward one political party. For example, President Obama won an average of 111.5 congressional districts with more than 20% of his national vote in the past two elections (e.g. more than >73% in 2008 and >71% in 2012). This was a huge increase from the Bush (97.5) and Clinton (72.5) elections. Further, it is evidence that reinforces what we have seen in congressional races. It is clear that congressional districts are becoming more polarized. (Side bar: gerrymandering has a negligible effect on this trend. But that is for another post).
In sum, House elections contain fewer competitive seats. This has been a staple of American politics for well over a century. However, this doesn’t mean there are no fluctuations. As Gonzales points out, national mood affects elections. The economy, presidential approval, and other factors play into the parties’ vote share from election to election. In fact, there is a good argument to be made that elections may become more “nationalized” in the future. Technological gains, the growth of television and cable news, and the increasing prevalence of national fundraising may make congressional elections more “nationally” affected than they have in the past. In other words, the phrase “all politics is local,” coined by former Speaker Tip O’Neill, may become less true than it once was as society continues to develop.
Regardless, congressional races are less competitive than they once were. This is one of many reasons that compromise and bipartisanship continues to evaporate from the political landscape. With safer (more partisan concentrated) districts, there is little incentive, or reward, for members to reach across the aisle.