Anti-incumbent Motivations in Presidential vs. Midterm Elections

One thing that’s been a consistent theme in talk about the presidential election next year is that the main motivator for Republican voters seems to be dislike of Obama, rather than enthusiasm about any of the GOP candidates. And today, Newt Gingrich predicted big GOP pick-ups in the House and Senate again next year. Which got me wondering: we know that anti-incumbent moods can swing a midterm election, but does the same hold for congressional races in presidential election years?

My intuition is to say no. Since midterms have much lower turnout on average, a strong anti-incumbent mood among out-party voters can provide a strong motivation in otherwise uninspiring races (i.e., when few voters have strong feelings about the individual candidates). This could thus sharply skew the relative turnout between each party’s base in a midterm. In presidential years, though, the presidential contest provides a positive motivation for in-party voters to turn out; if out-party voters have only a negative motivation (voting against the incumbent, but not necessarily for their nominee), the relative turnout difference should be much smaller.

(Note that I’m assuming overall preferences are held constant; in other words, that voters aren’t changing their minds about whom to vote for, they only choose whether or not to show up/donate/mobilize others and so forth.)

But this is just a conjecture, and I’m sure somebody’s already studied it. If so, can anyone recommend some reading on this topic? I’ve got some original survey data on the strength of each candidate’s coattails in 2008, and am thinking of combining that data with a broader study of the effects of presidential candidates on congressional races. As such, any suggestions about where to start re: previous work would be put to good use.

(Since I don’t keep up a comments section on this site, you can email me at Thanks!)

AAPOR Paper Link

Quick note before departing Phoenix: a few people have asked for copies of the paper I presented yesterday (which won AAPOR’s 2011 student paper award), and in case you’re one of them, you can download it here:

Is Anybody Listening? Informing, Persuading, and Priming in the 2000 and 2004 Presidential Campaigns

It’s a bit long, so I’m currently working on a new version which focuses specifically on informing effects in greater detail (the other results may be used in a subsequent paper). Also, I’ll need a new name for it–the most recent APSR (or was it AJPS?) had an article with the same main title–so suggestions as well as other feedback are welcome.

First thoughts on MPSA 2011

Sitting in the Palmer House lobby after my presentation this morning, some initial reactions:

  • Had a surprisingly good turnout at this morning’s panel–evidently some non-presenters do show up for the early ones.
  • It’s always a mixed blessing to find out other people are doing similar work. While it’s nice to know other people share your interests and approaches, it’s also distressing to be reminded how rare it is for anyone to have a truly original idea.
  • Are giant printed programs really necessary anymore? Aside from being a waste of paper, they could probably blamed for scores of back injuries among thousands of people forced to carry them around for days on end.
  • After a few years of this, I recognize a lot of faces and have met plenty of them at some point, but don’t actually know a whole lot of people well. So the number of awkward “do I know this person?” moments is disturbingly high this year.
  • In large part because of this, I’m once again glad to be staying at a different hotel–the Palmer can get a little overwhelming if you never leave.
  • The mac & cheese at Lockwood? Highly recommended.

Arrived in Chicago

Made it from Brooklyn in just
under 14 hours–not bad considering the snowy parts. Now to focus on the conference.

Tomorrow morning (panel 22-12, 10:25am), I’ll be presenting my “Is Anybody Listening” paper, which can be downloaded from the Working Papers section of my CV. If you’re around, come by–I don’t have any idea who else shows up this early other than the presenters, so I’m just hoping for the number of audience members to exceed the number of panelists.

On that front, I also have a panel on Saturday (23-15, 4:35pm) in which I’m presenting a brand new paper coauthored with Josh Tucker and Ted Brader. Especially looking forward to that one, both for our paper and the others on the panel as well.

Check in tomorrow for more updates. Goodnight, Chicago.