Politicians As Prize Fighters

I read this excellent paper by renowned political scientist John Zaller a while back.

The paper is really excellent in that it has a lot of commonsense arguments, a very close look at a lot of different areas of data, and a cool hook. Politicians are like boxers. Yea, really.

Really though, the important part of this paper is its very principled anti-cynicism. People think our country is broken in many ways. For instance there is a common sentiment that politicians are reelected due to the unfair influence they wield and that most large companies trade money for votes with elected officials.

The evidence on both these claims is actually very mixed, but this paper focuses on the prevalence of reelection. Why do most politicians lose so rarely? Is it because of corruption as many people think?

Zaller hypothesizes (and provides mathematical modeling for the proposition) that politicians lose races so rarely for the same reason that many heavyweight champion boxers lose so rarely: they’re really good. The idea is that political races enact a selection effect so that politicians who keep winning do so not because of any unfair advantages but because they had to win in the first place to get into office and so probably know what they’re doing.

This might explain the sophomore surge, which is the empirically irrefutable fact that politicians start winning much more easily starting in the SECOND race of their career. This makes sense. A politician’s first race is against an incumbent who probably knows what he is doing. If the challenger wins, then he must be more skilled  and so when he takes over the office, he will be even harder to beat. The quality of politicians as runners-for-office is thus constantly ratcheted upward as the weaker politicians lose out –natural selection for politicians. Thus, its no surprise that your average politician is going to get trounced by an incumbent; the incumbent is the equivalent of a heavyweight champion, having one at least one tough fight (read: election) and probably many.

There are questions I have though, all of them cynical. It’s also a pretty well confirmed fact that the best challengers to a seat (the smartest, hardest working, etc.) are also the savviest, and so wait until opportune moments to run. So, if the best challengers only challenge when the incumbent is weak (because of scandal, bad voting record, or a position on a controversial issue such as a war), then they might not really be better politicians, but just wisely opportunistic (a guy with a skill of 5 could beat a skill 6 guy if he waits for a damning mistake). In this way, the average skill of politicians would NOT be ratcheted up over time and might, in fact, come down in times of great upheaval or controversy. If the sophomore surge persists in such situations, then it seems likely that something about the powers of office and not the candidate’s skill are what is causing high incumbent reelection rates. Maybe some skepticism is warranted after all, but if it is, it’s got to be backed by an even more nuanced analysis of reelection rates. That is Zaller’s contribution in this paper.


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