The race that wasn′t | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 04.09.2012
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The race that wasn't

While the US presidential election is a close contest between an incumbent and a challenger, most congressional races are not competitive and long-decided on before the polls. Is that a problem for democracy?

On November 6, Americans won't just choose their next president, they will also elect a new House of Representatives and a third of the Senate.

The problem is, most congressional races are already decided long before voters even head to the polls.

Of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives less than 10 percent are really up for grabs.

According to the latest ratings chart maintained by Roll Call, the congressional newspaper, only 27 of the 435 House seats are toss-ups, meaning either Republicans or Democrats can win.

Add to that the 32 seats that, according to the paper, "lean" toward one party or the other, but are still competitive and even the 26 seats that are "likely" to vote for one of the parties, but are at least somewhat competitive, and you get to 85 seats. That's still only 20 percent.

That means that the vast majority - 350 seats or 80 percent of all seats - in the House of Representatives are not in play or considered "safe" in the election jargon used by Roll Call for either Republicans or Democrats.

In the Senate the picture looks slightly better. Of the 33 seats up for election this year Roll Call deems 15 "safe." That leaves slightly more than 50 percent of Senate races at least somewhat competitive - even though only eight are considered a true "toss-up" by Roll Call.

Old hat

The fact that the overwhelming majority of congressional races are not competitive has led to an ongoing debate about the root causes and whether something should be done to change it.

Speaker of the House John Boehner (R) delivers remarks to members of the news media while surrounded by Republican colleagues, on Capitol Hill in Washington DC, USA, 20 December 2011

The House majority leader's seat is safe

Much has been made particularly about the increasingly partisan political landscape which many consider as a key element that's contributing to what they see as a trend toward non-competitive races.

Not so, says Jamie Carson, an election expert at the University of Georgia in Athens:

"I can tell you just from studying this that it's been like this for almost a century now. It's been occurring ever since the United States has adopted the direct primary system where challengers run sort of on their own," he told DW.

So contrary to conventional wisdom it's not a new trend and it's also not a phenomenon that has increased dramatically in the recent past.


Similarly, gerrymandering, the much maligned practice of drawing voting districts to suit one political party - widely believed to be a main cause of non-competitive races - is the wrong culprit.

"It's a factor, but it's a relatively minor factor," Thomas Mann, the congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told DW.

Sure, it intensifies partisanship and can have significant effects in individual states.

"But if you accumulate those across the country you cannot conclude accurately the large number of uncompetitive seats is a consequence of gerrymandering," adds Mann.

Role of money

So what about the role of money? With a sticker price of more than $1 million (800,000 euros) for the average house race, money is definitely an issue in the competitiveness of races.

"Incumbents get the lions' share of donations and that makes sense," Thomas Brunell, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Dallas, told DW. "It's somewhat risky to bet your money on a challenger."

Therefore incumbents usually have a built-in financial advantage over a challenger.

"Money is a problematic in our politics," says Mann, but still "money doesn't explain it as well."

Residential choices

Instead, argue the experts, it's the effects of gerrymandering and the monetary advantage of incumbents coupled with a natural factor that is often overlooked:

The fact that people simply tend to move to places where similar-minded people live.

Nancy Pelosi of California walks past a row of flags before starting a press conference after the House passed health care reform in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Sunday, March 21, 2010. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Former House leader Nancy Pelosi's seat is safe as well

"And that as much as anything else is what has produced this level of non-competitive districts," argues Mann.

Which begs two questions: Is the large number of lopsided races pernicious for democracy? And if so, should anything be done about it?

For Brunell the answer to both questions is No.

Districts with a clear majority for one party are easier to represent, argues Brunell. What's more, most voters are happy because they like their representative or the party of their representative.

"And that to me is what's most important," he says. "I don't care which party it is, I just want to see for the democratic government to work as we sort of intend it to work which is do what the people want to do."

The disenfranchisement of voters in the US winner-take-all system is a problem, says Mann. More worrisome though, he adds, is the role of the party primary election as the de-facto kingmaker in non-competitive races.

These party primaries with their relative low turnout can easily be captured by fringe or interest groups as the Tea Party movement has proven in many Republican races.

Party polarization

"I think the concern is the extent to which this electoral phenomenon fuels the ideological polarization of the parties," says Mann.

"The only real way to tackle that is to change the electoral system and have something more akin to the German system where you have a combination of single-member districts, but then compensate for that with a party list as well."

Since that is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Mann points to smaller electoral reforms like the one California has introduced with its so-called top-two open primary system designed to give voters more choice and to favor moderates.

"But nothing happens quickly in our system," says Mann. "In fact almost nothing happens now given the intense polarization of the parties."

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