How Do We Make Elections More Competitive?

This year’s presidential election is guaranteed to be exciting. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are incredibly close in the polls, and barring a major change in outside conditions—economic collapse or a foreign-policy crisis—that will likely carry over through the fall.

For congressional elections, however, the picture is far less interesting. The race for control of the Senate will be close, but the House of Representatives will almost certainly remain a Republican stronghold. Indeed, only a handful of races on the Senate side are actually competitive. In the large majority of contested seats, the incumbent—or incumbent party—will win by a comfortable margin. The House is even less competitive. “If we had to call all the races today,” writes Kyle Kondik, house editor for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, “we’d estimate a Democratic gain of somewhere between five and ten seats, with a specific guess of Democrats plus-six.”

Remember, the entire House goes for re-election every two years. For this cycle, out of 435 members, only 10 are likely to switch hands—and that’s in the best-case scenario.

Which is to say that Congress is remarkably uncompetitive, where even in wave years—like 2006, 2008, 2010—the vast majority of lawmakers keep their seats, with little pressure from the opposing party.

There is a small cottage industry devoted to explaining the dearth of electoral competition in Congress, usually focused around redistricting and electoral manipulation. Last year, for example, in a special for CNN, reporter Drew Griffin tackled the subject of partisan gerrymandering. The idea was to expose the practice as corrosive to democracy. “We wanted to show the most important part of the political process when it comes to congressional elections,” said Griffin, “where politicians have been able to carve up the electoral process, therefore guaranteeing Democratic or Republican seats until they do this in the next ten years.” For Griffin and many others, partisan gerrymandering is a practice that inflates the incumbency rate and keeps voters from effectively evaluating their representatives.

This is a persuasive and intuitive-sounding idea. If parties can draw districts to favor their constituencies, then it seems like we should expect a world where few lawmakers lose their seats. Indeed, this intuition animates the periodic calls to end partisan gerrymandering and place district-drawing in the hands of a nonpartisan committee. There are already 11 states that utilize a non- or bipartisan method for redistricting, and there are constant calls to extend the approach.

But for as much as this intuition makes sense, it isn’t actually supported by the available evidence. I e-mailed Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver, for his take on gerrymandering and competitiveness. “A lot of scholarship suggests that gerrymandering has only a very modest effect, if any, on the competitiveness of elections,” Masket says. “To the extent that districts are becoming less competitive, that probably has a lot more to do with the polarization of public voting patterns.”

As he explains, this has less to do with greater partisanship among voters and more to do with the fact that like-minded people tend to live together. “It’s not so much that the electorate is becoming more partisan but rather that people are living in more polarized communities than they used to.” Liberals flock to college towns and cities, conservatives move to suburbs and rural areas, and states divide along geographic lines. You can see this in any county-by-county map of election results. In Virginia, Democratic votes come entirely from the state’s major metropolitan areas: Northern Virginia, Richmond, and Hampton Roads. By contrast, Republicans draw most of their support from the more rural areas of central and western Virginia. Under the most rational redistricting scheme, which grouped similar areas together, both Democrats and Republicans would have districts where partisan control never changed hands. If anything, Masket suggests, partisan gerrymandering might make districts more competitive.

If gerrymandering doesn’t explain the lack of competition in Congress, what does? In a 1998 paper, UCLA political scientist John Zaller argued for selection bias—“Owing to their manner of selection, incumbents are simply better politicians than most of their opponents and are therefore usually able to best them in electoral combat.” You can see evidence of this in the aftermath of wave elections, where a large number of new members enter Congress but then lose as their political weakness becomes apparent (Florida’s Allen West, a Tea Party Republican who currently holds a competitive district, is a good example of this).

Moreover, there’s the tremendous perk of incumbency itself. Not only do incumbents have advantages that come with being in office—being able to direct funds and projects to the district, for example—but they are more skilled campaigners—having won office before—and are able to raise huge amounts of money, to say nothing of support from outside groups and the national party itself. As political scientist Alan Abramowitz notes in a 2006 paper, “The large majority of challengers … lack the financial resources to wage competitive campaigns.” Indeed, if there’s one thing that’s changed in the last 30 years, it’s the drastic decline in financial competitiveness:

Abramowitz points out that between 1992 and 2002, in the districts most likely to be competitive, median spending by incumbents rose from $596,000 to $910,000, while median spending by challengers fell from $229,000 to $198,000. When it comes down to it, challengers simply lack the money to mount an effective bid for office.

Is there anything we can do to make elections more competitive? The easy answer is campaign-finance reform. We don’t need to limit the funds of incumbents as much as we need to make it easier for challengers to raise money. There are many ways you can do this, from matching funds—where the government provides a certain amount for every dollar raised—to a single lump sum. Either way, the more money a challenger has, the greater the odds for actual competition.

More likely than a huge change in how we finance campaigns is a return to partisan gerrymandering. It’s ironic, but research suggests that districts become more competitive when politicians are responsible for drawing the districts. It’s not hard to see why. Parties seek to maximize the number of winnable seats, but doing so requires them to dilute existing strength. They spread themselves thin, and as a result, create the opportunity for greater electoral competition.

“More money” and “more gerrymandering” aren’t satisfying answers to the problem of competition. But unlike the alternatives, we know that they work. If we’re actually interested in solving the problem, we should give them a try.