Congressional Elections: Crash Course Government and Politics #6


This week Craig Benzine talks about the importance of elections. But he isn’t going to focus on presidential elections, but instead those of the strongest part of our government: congressional elections. Craig will talk about the frequency of elections in the Senate and House, typical characteristics of a candidate, and the motivating factors our congresspeople follow to get re-elected.

Transcript Provided by YouTube:

00:02
Hi, I’m Craig and this is Crash Course Government and Politics, and today we’re going to talk
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about what is, if you ask the general public, the most important part of politics: elections.
00:12
If you ask me, it’s hair styles.
00:14
Look at Martin Van Buren’s sideburns, how could he not be elected?
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Americans are kind of obsessed with elections, I mean when this was being recorded in early
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2015, television, news and the internet were already talking about who would be Democrat
00:25
and Republican candidates for president in 2016. And many of the candidates have unofficially
00:29
been campaigning for years. I’ve been campaigning; your grandma’s been campaigning.
00:33
Presidential elections are exciting and you can gamble on them. Is that legal, can you
00:37
gamble on them, Stan? Anyway, why we’re so obsessed with them is a topic for another day.
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Right now I’m gonna tell you that the fixation on the presidential elections is wrong, but
00:45
not because the president doesn’t matter. No, today we’re gonna look at the elections
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of the people that are supposed to matter the most, Congress.
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[Theme Music]
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Constitutionally at least, Congress is the most important branch of government because
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it is the one that is supposed to be the most responsive to the people.
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One of the main reasons it’s so responsive, at least in theory, is the frequency of elections.
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If a politician has to run for office often, he or she, because unlike the president we have women
01:15
serving in Congress, kind of has to pay attention to what the constituents want, a little bit, maybe.
01:20
By now, I’m sure that most of you have memorized the Constitution, so you recognize that despite
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their importance in the way we discuss politics, elections aren’t really a big feature of the Constitution.
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Except of course for the ridiculously complex electoral college system for choosing the
01:32
president, which we don’t even want to think about for a few episodes. In fact, here’s
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what the Constitution says about Congressional Elections in Article 1 Section 2:
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“The House of Representatives shall be composed of members chosen every second year by the
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people of the several states, and the electors in each state shall have the qualifications
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requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislature.”
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So the Constitution does establish that the whole of the house is up for election every
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2 years, and 1/3 of the senate is too, but mainly it leaves the scheduling and rules
01:59
of elections up to the states. The actual rules of elections, like when the polls are
02:02
open and where they actually are, as well as the registration requirements, are pretty
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much up to the states, subject to some federal election law.
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If you really want to know the rules in your state, I’m sure that someone at the Board
02:11
of Elections will be happy to explain them to you. Really, you should give them a call; they’re very, very lonely.
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In general though, here’s what we can say about American elections. First stating the
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super obvious, in order to serve in congress, you need to win an election.
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In the House of Representatives, each election district chooses a single representative,
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which is why we call them single-member districts. The number of districts is determined by the
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Census, which happens every 10 years, and which means that elections ending in zeros
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are super important, for reasons that I’ll explain in greater detail in a future episode.
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It’s because of gerrymandering.
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The Senate is much easier to figure out because both of the state Senators are elected
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by the entire state. It’s as if the state itself were a single district, which is true
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for states like Wyoming, which are so unpopulated as to have only 1 representative. Sometimes
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these elections are called at large elections.
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Before the election ever happens, you need candidates. How candidates are chosen differs
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from state to state, but usually it has something to do with political parties, although it
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doesn’t have to. Why are things so complicated?!
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What we can say is that candidates, or at least good candidates, usually have certain characteristics.
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Sorry America.
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First off, if you are gonna run for office, you should have an unblemished record, free
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of, oh I don’t know, felony convictions or sex scandals, except maybe in Louisiana or
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New York. This might lead to some pretty bland candidates or people who are so calculating
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that they have no skeletons in their closet, but we Americans are a moral people and like
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our candidates to reflect our ideals rather than our reality.
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The second characteristic that a candidate must possess is the ability to raise money.
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Now some candidates are billionaires and can finance their own campaigns. But most billionaires
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have better things to do: buying yachts, making even more money, building money forts, buying
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more yachts, so they don’t have time to run for office. But most candidates get their
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money for their campaigns by asking for it. The ability to raise money is key, especially
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now, because running for office is expensive. Can I get a how expensive is it? “How expensive
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is it?!” Well, so expensive that the prices of elections continually rises and in 2012
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winners of House races spent nearly 2 million each. Senate winners spent more than 10 million.
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By the time this episode airs, I’m sure the numbers will be much higher like a gajillion billion million.
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Money is important in winning an election, but even more important, statistically, is
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already being in Congress. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
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The person holding an office who runs for that office again is called the incumbent
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and has a big advantage over any challenger. This is according to political scientists
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who, being almost as bad at naming things as historians, refer to this as incumbency advantage.
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There are a number of reasons why incumbents tend to hold onto their seats in congress, if they want to.
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The first is that a sitting congressman has a record to run on, which we hope includes
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some legislative accomplishments, although for the past few Congresses, these don’t seem
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to matter. The record might include case work, which is providing direct services to constituents.
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This is usually done by congressional staffers and includes things like answering questions
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about how to get certain government benefits or writing recommendation letters to West
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Point. Congressmen can also provide jobs to constituents, which is usually a good way
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to get them to vote for you. These are either government jobs, kind of rare these days,
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called patronage or indirect employment through government contracts for programs within a
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Congressman’s district. These programs are called earmarks or pork barrel programs, and
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they are much less common now because Congress has decided not to use them any more, sort of.
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The second advantage that incumbents have is that they have a record of winning elections,
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which if you think about it, is pretty obvious. Being a proven winner makes it easier for
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a congressmen to raise money, which helps them win, and long term incumbents tend to
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be more powerful in Congress which makes it even easier for them to raise money and win.
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The Constitution give incumbents one structural advantage too. Each elected congressman is
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allowed $100,000 and free postage to send out election materials. This is called the
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franking privilege. It’s not so clear how great an advantage this is in the age of the internet, but
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at least according to the book The Victory Lab, direct mail from candidates can be surprisingly effective.
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How real is this incumbency advantage? Well if you look at the numbers, it seems pretty
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darn real. Over the past 60 years, almost 90% of members of The House of Representatives
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got re-elected. The Senate has been even more volatile, but even at the low point in 1980
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more than 50% of sitting senators got to keep their jobs.
06:00
Thanks, Thought Bubble. You’re so great. So those are some of the features of congressional
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elections. Now, if you’ll permit me to get a little politically sciencey, I’d like to
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try to explain why elections are so important to the way that Congressmen and Senators do their jobs.
06:12
In 1974, political scientist David Mayhew published a book in which he described something
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he called “The Electoral Connection.” This was the idea that Congressmen were primarily motivated
06:20
by the desire to get re-elected, which intuitively makes a lot of sense, even though I’m not
06:24
sure what evidence he had for this conclusion. Used to be able to get away with that kind
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of thing I guess, clearly David may-not-hew to the rules of evidence, pun [rim shot], high five, nope.
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Anyway Mayhew’s research methodology isn’t as important as his idea itself because
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The Electoral Connection provides a frame work for understanding congressman’s activities.
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Mayhew divided representatives’ behaviors and activities into three categories.
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The first is advertising; congressmen work to develop their personal brand so that they
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are recognizable to voters. Al D’Amato used to be know in New York as Senator Pothole,
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because he was able to bring home so much pork that he could actually fix New York’s
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streets. Not by filling them with pork, money, its money, remember pork barrel spending?
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The second activity is credit claiming; Congressmen get things done so that they can say they got them done.
07:07
A lot of case work and especially pork barrel spending are done in the name of credit claiming.
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Related to credit claiming, but slightly different, is position taking.
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This means making a public judgmental statement on something likely to be of interest to voters.
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Senators can do this through filibusters. Representatives can’t filibuster, but they
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can hold hearings, publicly supporting a hearing is a way of associating yourself with an idea
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without having to actually try to pass legislation. And of course they can go on the TV, especially
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on Sunday talk shows. What’s a TV, who even watches TV?
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Now the idea of The Electoral Connection doesn’t explain every action a member of Congress takes; sometimes
07:39
they actually make laws to benefit the public good or maybe solve problems. Huh, what an idea!
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But Mayhew’s idea gives us a way of thinking about Congressional activity, an analytical lens that
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connects what Congressmen actually do with how most of us understand Congressmen, through elections.
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So the next time you see a Congressmen call for a hearing on a supposed horrible scandal
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or read about a Senator threatening to filibuster a policy that may have significant popular
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support, ask yourself, “Is this Representative claiming credit or taking a position, and
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how will this build their brand?” In other words: what’s the electoral connection and
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how will whatever they’re doing help them get elected? This might feel a little cynical,
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but the reality is Mayhew’s thesis often seems to fit with today’s politics.
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Thanks for watching, see you next week. Vote for me; I’m on the TV.
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I’m not — I’m on the YouTube.
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08:42
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This post was previously published on YouTube.

Photo credit: Screenshot from video.