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Non-strategic behavior of political parties when deciding when incumbents should retire

One thing I learned in econ class in 11th grade was that government policy should be counter-cyclical (spending more in recessions and cutting back in boom times), but that there’s a lot of pressure to be pro-cyclical, which will tend to exacerbate business cycles. (Except I suppose they didn’t say “exacerbate” in 11th grade.) At a personal level, too, it’s natural to spend more when we have more and cut back when we aren’t doing so well. Every now and then you hear about a “rainy day fund” but my general impression is that these are never big enough to counter the business cycle.

Political parties seem to apply a similar pro-cyclical behavior in their congressional election campaigns. Consider 2008. . .

It’s expected to be a good year for the Democrats, and so now should be the time for them to make some investments in new, young candidates. They should encourage lots of their incumbents to retire, because in 2008, they can win a lot of these districts without needing the incumbency advantage (estimated to be about 10% of the vote, i.e., enough to take you from 50% to 60%). Conversely, this is the time for the Republican Party to hold on to what it has, and to keep all their incumbents in, trying to hold out until 2010 when the pendulum might swing back in their favor. But we don’t see that—actually, something like 30 Republican House members are retiring this year. Republicans retiring, Democrats sticking around—that’s a recipe for big Democratic gains this year. But then in 2010, or 2014, or whatever year it is when the Democrats get wiped out—then a bunch of their incumbents will probably retire, and boy will the Democrats wished they had put in younger incumbents back in 2008 when they had a chance!

One of the difficulties here is that I’m talking about the long-term goals of the parties, but “the parties” are, to a large extent, simply their officeholders. And congressmembers’ incentives can be much different from those of the party as a whole. In particular, it makes sense that an incumbent congressmember will want to quit in a year when he or she would be facing a tough reelection battle, and when the prize for winning is to remain in the minority. Conversely, why step down when you’re facing an easy reelection and the prospect of some juicy committee assignments? So the individual officeholders have an incentive for pro-cyclical behavior, even if it harms their party’s long-term interest.

Beyond the benefits or lack thereof to the individual parties, pro-cyclical behavior would seem to increase the size of political changes, making the swings in congressional representation larger than would be expected simply based on swings in public opinion. Actually, many political scientists would consider this a good thing (an increased “swing ratio”); my point here is that some of this swing is “endogenous” in the sense of arising from pro-cyclical decisions of individual congressmembers deciding whether to run for reelection. It would be interesting to see if this happens with state legislatures as well.
We also see this in the Senate. For example, 84-year-old Frank Lautenberg is running for reelection in New Jersey. This is a Democratic year when the Democrats might do well with just about anybody. (Or maybe not; I don’t really follow New Jersey politics and am just extrapolating from national polls.) In 6 years, they’re going to need to find someone new, and at that point they might wish they had an incumbent already in the slot.

5 Comments

  1. David says:

    In 6 years, they’re going to need to find someone new, and at that point they might wish they had an incumbent already in the slot.

    I've lived in NJ for 7 years now. I can't, for the life of me, figure out why Lautenberg is running. Rob Andrews is his [only relevant] opponent, and is wildly popular down here in the NJ-1st district [he's our Representative; he won his last house race with something like 75% of the vote]. Only thing I can reckon is that it's a NJ Democratic Party thing, trying to keep Giants fans in control of the DC contingent.

    Lautenberg, as the incumbent, is the only person with a base that is well enough consolidated to keep Rob out of the Senate. So, local rules dominating national rules [plus, it doesn't seem that the national party spends much money in NJ, probably because it doesn't have enough money to make a difference].

  2. Andrew says:

    David,

    I dunno. Perhaps someone's asked this of Lautenberg in an interview?

  3. David says:

    Apparently, it's local politics at play. The conclusions from the dissection of the local breakdowns makes it seem like the seat is a linchpin of relationships, not a part of the support itself. This line is telling:

    And that risk alone is too high a price for any self-respecting party boss to pay for a U.S. Senate race, where, after all, no patronage is at stake.

    Social networks are funny things. I play a game in my head called how-many-degrees-to-zero? It's about how for away you get in your social network before you have no idea what the value of a global social policy is to that person. Selfish people are zero, worldly people get the generic six. The game is to get a read on people and make a [completely unverifiable] guess. Funny, in this situation, about how we are trying to pick someone who should be a six, is working in the

  4. brian says:

    Hey Andrew, I was wondering at your analogy. With the financial system, the cycles are the movements of business and the indicators of that movement is the availiability/movement of money. In the political side the cycles are the partisan moments of the body politic. The indicators of that movement is the prospective votes, polls etc. If your analogy is directly applied (that is run counter cyclical to the generosity of the movement) then the democrats and republicans are doing Exactly what they should be doing. The republicans are spending/borrowing (bringing in new faces) right when their political reputation is not the best. The democrats have an expectant reputation and thus are being conservative with their political gambling. If you're getting votes its for a reason, don't change what voters are voting for. Conversely the republicans aren't getting votes for a reason also. It is the exact time that they need to be asking for new votes.

    Let me know if I misunderstood you, Thanks.

  5. Andrew says:

    David: Interesting point.

    Brian: It's gotta depend on the details. Sure, in a seat you think you're going to lose anyway, you might as well run a new candidate and give him or her the exposure. But, on the whole, I don't think those are the key cases.

    In NJ in 2008, the Democrats were probably going to win either way. But if Lautenberg had stepped down, then the Dems in 2014 would be running with an incumbent and would probably be in better shape. Instead, they'll have to come up with a new candidate. And 2014 could very well be a strong year for the Republicans.

    Conversely, Republicans may have lost more seats than they had to in 2006 because of the retirements. With an incumbent candidate, your party can hold on in a bad year and wait for a good year to come up. But, as I said, I think that parties are actually not using that strategy.