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Do presidential elections produce more ideologically extreme senators?

If so, it would be a surprise. The electorate that votes for president is larger and more moderate than the electorate that votes in midterm elections. You'd expect that to lead to more moderate Senate elections, too. But according to a new paper by Yosh Halberstam and Pablo Montagnes, the truth is just the opposite:

In this paper, we compare senators first elected in midterms with those first elected in presidential elections and find them strikingly different: The cohort of senators first elected in presidential elections is consistently more ideologically extreme and party disciplined than the cohort first elected in midterms. This result is surprising in light of empirical evidence suggesting that the electorate in presidential elections is more ideologically moderate and less partisan than the electorate in midterm elections.

Furthermore, we find that senators who are ousted or retire from office during the time period around presidential elections are significantly more ideologically moderate and vote more independently than those who exit around midterms. Together, these two empirical regularities suggest that the relatively more moderate electorate in presidential elections generates a more extreme and polarized Senate. These findings suggest that holding concurrent races for office is not outcome neutral and raise policy questions about the timing of elections and ballot initiatives.

My guess is that this is because presidential campaigns nationalize elections, which makes it harder for a moderate Republican to get elected in a Democratic state, or vice versa. The parties become more important and the individuals less important. But it's hard to say.

By Ezra Klein  |  January 27, 2010; 12:28 PM ET
Categories:  Political Science  
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"My guess is that this is because presidential campaigns nationalize elections, which makes it harder for a moderate Republican to get elected in a Democratic state, or vice."

And that is the answer in a nutshell. Good job!

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | January 27, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

It seems to me we are likely to see the revival of the moderate Republican party in the 2010 elections. Look at Brown, Castle in Del, Kirk in IL. That might say the non-Presidential party loses ground in the off-years, but often to the moderate wing of the opposing party.

Posted by: bharshaw | January 27, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to see this broken down by whether the presidential nomination for the new senator's party is open or not. I wonder if having a contested presidential primary leads to a senate primary electorate that's more likely to turn to the strong partisan candidate.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | January 27, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if this is true of governors, too - are states with off-year gubernatorial elections more likely to produce partisan governors than those with on-year gubernatorial elections?

Posted by: dcamsam | January 27, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

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