Canaries in a coal mine : are open seat and congressional special elections indicative of national partisan tides?
Petersen, Seth Walter.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Georgetown University, 2010.; Includes bibliographical references.; Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format. This dissertation addresses whether the outcomes of open seat and congressional special elections are more indicative of local factors or national partisan tides within the electorate. While political pundits often imbue electoral outcomes with national significance, academic explanations of open seat and congressional special elections stress the importance of candidate resources and district demographics in deciding the contests. Pitting the conventional wisdom as presented by the national media against the candidate-constituency model advanced in the political science literature, this dissertation investigates, and assesses the accuracy of, the divergent interpretations of open seat and congressional special elections presented by political pundits in the national media and political scientists. Using OLS regression to analyze all open seat and congressional special elections from 1977-2008 this dissertation concludes that while open seat elections may reflect referenda effects against the incumbent president's party, national factors are only directly decisive if the open seat election is close and presidential approval or the policy mood of the electorate shifts drastically. On the other hand, congressional special elections are decidedly local affairs affected by candidate spending and the percent Hispanic residing in the district. Further analysis also uncovered that congressional special elections were not unique from open seat elections. Hence, this dissertation concluded any differences between open seat and congressional special elections were largely a product of "strategic politicians" and the national media's ability to prime national concerns through the increased publicity that accompanies open seat elections, but not congressional special elections. In sum, this research determined the largely local nature of open seat and congressional special elections. Although pundits can correctly paint open seat elections as reflecting referenda effects, the remainder of the conventional wisdom as portrayed by the national media is largely incorrect. This research also lends clarity to the previously disparate findings presented within the scarce scholarly research devoted to congressional special elections and moves academia one step closer to a consensus regarding the local nature of congressional special election contests. The implications of this research for potential candidates, American political parties, and American democracy are discussed in the conclusion.
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