Everyone Hates Congress, But No One Challenges Our Congressmen

The especially small number of Massachusetts races with actual competition this cycle reflects a national trend.

How is it that no one is trying to unseat the people sitting in Congress even as America grows less and less fond of the institution as a whole? The 2014 midterm elections promise to be pretty boring on the Congressional level in Massachusetts given that six of our state’s nine Representatives won’t face a challenger, The Boston Globe‘s Matt Viser reports today:

The failure of Republicans to field a candidate in six of nine US House races in Massachusetts makes this year one of the least competitive congressional election seasons in a half century or more, highlighting how politically stagnant the state has become and leaving Democratic incumbents wondering what to do on the campaign trail.

While Massachusetts might be an unusually blue state, the trend away from competition in House elections is not our problem alone. It is a long-running trend for Congress as a whole. The Globe measured competitiveness by looking at the number of uncontested races. But there are other metrics: the number of races decided by a margin of less than 10 percent, or the number of races that came within five percent of the national presidential vote, for example. Those, too, show that the competitiveness of Congressional elections is in decline. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver crunched the numbers in 2012:

In 1992, there were 103 members of the House of Representatives elected from what might be called swing districts: those in which the margin in the presidential race was within five percentage points of the national result. But based on an analysis of this year’s presidential returns, I estimate that there are only 35 such Congressional districts remaining, barely a third of the total 20 years ago.

Politicians are often quick to blame Gerrymandering—the process of redrawing district lines to make them more favorable to the majority party. But there are other factors at play, too. Political scientists have shown that even without the redrawn lines, voters within districts are growing more partisan, and they are less likely to split their votes between parties. It has also become more difficult financially for a challenger to make an effective bid against a sitting Congressman. These are the sorts of factors that compound. As districts grow more uniformly partisan, they might attract new people who share the political views of the current residents, cementing that district’s political bent, for example.

As Silver notes, America’s increasing distaste for voting out their own Congressman, with whom they might be quite satisfied, may actually cause Americans to disapprove of Congress as a whole:

Individual members of Congress are responding fairly rationally to their incentives. Most members of the House now come from hyperpartisan districts where they face essentially no threat of losing their seat to the other party. Instead, primary challenges, especially for Republicans, may be the more serious risk.

To Congress, this trend makes compromise seem like a bad decision, which in turn makes Congress seem like an ineffective body. So while it might seem like the lack of challengers in Massachusetts is a particular symptom of our strong blue streak (and it is), it is also a symptom of a larger problem in U.S. politics. And rather than conflict with the other problem—our dislike for Congress as a whole—it actually helps explain it.