Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform

The Politics of Congressional Elections Across Time
Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts


In Ambition, Competition, and Electoral Reform, Jamie L. Carson and Jason M. Roberts present an original study of U.S. congressional elections and electoral institutions for 1872-1944 from a contemporary political science perspective. Using data on late nineteenth and early twentieth century congressional elections, the authors test the applicability in a historical context of modern political science theories, assess the effects of institutional reforms, and identify the factors that shape the competitiveness of elections. They present several key findings: the strategic politicians theory is applicable in an era without candidate-centered campaigns; there was an incumbency advantage prior to the full development of candidate-centered campaigns; institutional reforms have had a significant effect on elections; and the degree of electoral competition frequently correlates with elected officials' responsiveness to citizens.

"The singular achievement of Jamie Carson's and Jason Roberts' research is that they have succeeded in extending modern insights regarding congressional candidacies—mainly the predominance of 'strategic politicians' as contenders—backward historically to embrace early twentieth-century and post-Civil War nineteenth-century contests. . . . Their work confirms the central findings of modern researchers; experienced candidates fare better than outsiders. By illuminating candidacies during this pre-modern period, the authors cast new light upon Progressive Era reforms. The result is a major contribution to American electoral history."
—Roger H. Davidson, University of Maryland, College Park

"Carson and Roberts deal a mighty blow to the mythology that congressional candidate quality only matters in the modern era. Using data previous scholars have thought nonexistent, Carson and Roberts clearly, comprehensively, and convincingly show that congressional candidates, acting as strategic politicians, decided to run based on their perceived probability of winning and the likelihood of gaining a position from the party organization if they did not. Political observers of all types will find this book to be an important catalyst of ideas for further research and revision of conventional wisdom for many years to come."
—Robin A. Kolodny, Temple University

"Carson and Roberts' work is an exemplar of the use of history to test empirical theories about politics. Their finding that candidate quality has a strong effect on congressional elections during an era characterized by party-centered politics is provocative and compelling. This book will lead congressional election scholars to rethink the applicability of their theoretical arguments to a broader time frame."
—James C. Garand, Louisiana State University

Jamie L. Carson is Professor of Political Science at the University of Georgia.

Jason M. Roberts is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Praise / Awards

  • "In an age of incumbent safety and congressional districts gerrymandered out of competitiveness, the authors raise timely normative questions about the public’s trust in a legislature of incumbents. ... their contribution of a rich trove of election analysis serves as a reminder that the problems we have with our legislators are not unique to us, are not simply the fault of wicked party leaders, and cannot be solved as if they were."
    Journal of American History

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Product Details

  • 192 pages.
  • 20 figures, 12 tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Ebook
  • 2013
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-02895-5

  • PDF: Adobe Digital Editions e-book (DRM Protected)

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  • U.S. House elections, congressional elections, strategic politicians, incumbency advantage, electoral reform, American political development, electoral competition