Thursday, July 29, 2010

Q2: Nationalization?

Colby asks:
Are all elections more "nationalized", now than, say, 30 years ago? Then ten years ago? That is, are elections even for Congressional candidates (hell, even for State legislature candidates!) less likely to turn on local issues (Even the local economy) than on national issues? If so, what caused this? My hypothesis would be the rise of a national political media and the very recent fall of local reporting, so if you wanted to comment on that, specifically, it'd be cool. :) 
A really good question, and one for which I don't know the answer.  I don't think anyone does, but I could be wrong about that.  I know that we don't have any good information about party networks over time, although we do know about changes in formal party organizations, especially at the national level.  As far as I know, we also know relatively little about electioneering over time (which means I can't really answer Dan Miller's question either, unfortunately).   

Here's what I know.  We're setting this at 30 years, right?  1980 (when, as we know from Senator Coburn, the world was perfect).  Hmmm....let me cheat a little, though, and set it back forty years, to 1970.  I think this all applies to 30 years, but it's safer to say 40.

Since then, I think we can identify a few definite changes:

1.  The national parties have grown.  The formal party organizations have more resources than they did in 1970.  Probably more importantly, informal party networks have (we think) grown considerably, and are more important.  How does that matter?  My guess -- and we only have minimal evidence -- is that most campaigns in 1970 were dominated by local people.  The campaign managers and staff, the volunteers, and even the consultants (if any) were likely to be be local.  I believe, and again we only have minimal evidence, that those people were less likely to be partisans than they are now.  There were a number of relatively famous consultants from the 1960s and 1970s who worked for candidates from both parties; there are essentially none, now.  Back then, I think it was unlikely that any candidate would import a campaign manager from the national network; now, it's common in major campaigns. 

2.  I think Colby is correct that the media mix has tilted from local to national since 1970.  There was practically no national sustained coverage of Congressional elections back then (where would it have appeared?); now, while in my view Congressional elections are still undercovered, there are places like TPM that do pay attention.

3.  Related to #1 above, but worth separating out...national activist and donor networks are far more evolved than they were in 1970.  If you were just an ordinary citizen and wanted to send money to a closely contested House race between a solid Democrat and a solid Republican in 1970...actually, I have no idea what you would do.  Finding out which races were close must have been next-to-impossible.  Getting contact information for the candidates?  Not impossible, but not at all easy.   Finding out the candidates' issue positions?  Again, unless for some reason one of the candidates had a national reputation (rare in Senate races; extremely rare in House elections), I really don't know how you could go about doing it.

Put all of that together, and it certainly makes sense that there would be a lot more likely to find candidates taking positions on national issues than it was forty years ago.  The demand for it is higher.  The cost, however, is lower; it's very easy now for local candidates to cut and paste their national party's positions onto the "issues" section of their website; if you've hired one or more staff person with national experience, they are likely to know those positions and be able to generate the correct rhetoric without a lot of difficulty.  Meanwhile, the demand for positions on local issues is somewhat diminished, since there are fewer local reporters to talk to, while the cost might be a bit higher if campaigns are being run by national party network operatives who might be less familiar with those issues.  Might be...might not.  House candidates are probably still just as worried about getting in trouble for not knowing local issues, even if they're less likely to be asked about them by the press and, if they do get in trouble, somewhat less likely to have voters actually notice the resulting fuss (since there is less local news -- but there are still attack ads and mailers from the opposing candidates). 

So the answer is: it wouldn't be surprising if national issues have become relatively more important than they were, and local issues less important, but I'm not aware of any actually evidence that that has actually happened.

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