The issue with congressional representation

In an era of such polarized politics, is it time to discuss a change to congressional representation? Dr. Brian Schaffner broached that subject during a lecture on Monday Nov. 9, 2015. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus). 

“Can incumbents still win over members of the opposite party?” That was the question Dr. Brian Schaffner tried to answer during a talk about the nature of congressional representation in an era of increasing political polarization on Monday afternoon.

Most of the existing theories and studies of representation were created during an era of less polarized and less partisan politics. Schaffner, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, decided to address how legislators are still able to win support from some constituents of the opposite party in their districts in spite of strong political divisions between Democrats and Republicans.

Through the research he accumulated while developing two working papers, Schaffner found that in the 2010, 2012 and 2014 elections, 99 percent of incumbents who ran in a district heavily balanced toward their own party won re-election.

“Incumbents are much less likely to succeed in districts that lean towards the other party,” Schaffner said.

However, he also found that while individuals mostly draw on individual self-interest when evaluating their representatives, they also appear to account for the broader interests of their district—a surprising discovery in an era of such strong political divisions.

This spurred Schaffner to investigate voters’ “personal” and “communal” considerations.

“The personal vote is the additional electoral support that a representative receives because of his or her own personal traits or the job he has done in office,” he said.

It does not include other electoral advantages incumbents have, such as being more experienced candidates or campaign finance advantages.

In some contexts, individuals may think more broadly and examine their representative’s “communal” representation. They may give weight to whether their incumbent’s stances are aligned with their district as a whole and “evaluate more broadly than their own individual self-interest,” Schaffner said.

In order to evaluate the effects of communal representation, Schaffner had to determine whether or not the constituents he was studying knew when they were “out of step” with their district. This required knowing their own party identification, as well as the party identification of most others in their district.

Overall, Schaffner found that “people are actually pretty good… at knowing the partisanship of their congressional districts.”

About one-third of the respondents to Schaffner’s study saw themselves as out of step with their district. Schaffner discovered that being politically unaligned with their district made the constituents less likely to approve of their incumbent, but “even people who are out of step with the partisanship of their congressional district still give their representative a lot of credit for doing a good job representing the people in their district.”

While individuals mostly draw on individual self-interest when evaluating their representatives, Schaffner found, they do appear to account for communal considerations as well.

Even in an era of polarization and heightened partisanship, it is still possible for representatives to win over constituents from the opposite party.

“It may not be that people are self-interested to an extreme,” Schaffner said.


Helen Stec is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at helen.stec@uconn.edu.