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New BYU study calculates importance of issues in outcomes of House races

Shows GOP could have won 20 more House races in '98 with different issues strategy

The issues congressional candidates choose on which to campaign have a significant impact on election outcomes, according to a new analysis of the 1998 elections conducted by political scientists at Brigham Young University and the University of Maryland.

The study included a simulation of the 1998 House races that determined various outcomes based on which issues were emphasized. In the real elections, the GOP lost five seats, but with 20/20 hindsight, the researchers found the party might have gained 15 seats by running on certain Republican-friendly issues.

Previous research and conventional political wisdom holds that voters are too busy and too uninformed to actually weigh what candidates say. Party identification, voters' sociological characteristics and the size of campaign war chests were thought to have the most impact on election outcomes in down-ballot races like House campaigns.

"In fact, the issues on which candidates decide to base their campaign makes a difference in the number of votes they receive," said Kelly Patterson, chair of the Political Science Department at Brigham Young University and a co-author on the study. "Getting a campaign to revolve around an issue favorable to a candidate's party would be worth a couple of percentage points at the polls."

Patterson teamed with fellow BYU political science professor Jay Goodliffe and Paul S. Herrnson and Owen Abbe of the University of Maryland's Center for American Politics and Citizenship on the study, which appears in the new issue of Political Research Quarterly.

"A candidate who is able to tap into core party issues is more likely to win more votes than is a candidate who does not have the knowledge or opportunity to capitalize on these issues," said Herrnson. "Issues play an important role in winning the support of partisan and independent voters."

The researchers found that candidates must find ways to campaign on and around issues on which their party has perceived strength, such as education and the environment for Democrats and the military and tax policy for Republicans.

"Strategically, a candidate is better off competing on her own turf," said BYU's Goodliffe. "Instead of trying to appropriate the other party's issues, she should try to make her party's issue the battleground and set the agenda."

To arrive at their conclusions, the research teamed linked issue-based campaigning to voter decisions. To understand campaigns, they used information from the University of Maryland's 1998 Congressional Campaign Study, which surveys candidates and campaign aides to collect information on campaign issues, organization, strategy and budgets. Those results were compared with voter behavior and attitudes culled from the Voter News Service's national exit poll, which gauges voters' party affiliation, demographics, issue positions and vote preferences.

After plugging the data into statistical models, the researchers controlled for factors like campaign spending and party affiliation, allowing them to zero in on the impact of issues.

Goodliffe outlined the following findings of the researchers' simulations, based on an "average" voter in terms of demographics and other individual characteristics:

  • Not surprisingly, issue agreement affects independents more than partisan voters. An independent voter who agrees with the Democratic candidate on a Democratically-owned issue is 40 percent more likely to vote for the Democrat as the Republican.

  • Party identification still has a major impact. A Democrat who doesn't agree with either candidate on the issues is at least five times as likely to vote for the Democrat as the Republican.

  • But agreeing on issues can make an impact beyond party identification. A Democrat who agrees with the Democratic candidate on a Democratically-owned issue will be 8 percent more likely to vote for the Democratic candidate. Those independents and extra partisans mean the difference between winning and losing a close election, Patterson points out, noting that each cycle has between 40 and 60 tight House races.

    "In 1998, the Republicans made a mistake when they tried to make the election about President Clinton and his scandals, but voters wanted to talk about education and health care," Patterson said.

    Goodliffe explained the consequences of that error with another simulation.

    "If we hold the Democratic strategy constant, we calculate that an agenda-setting Republican-issue strategy would have increased the Republican national vote by 2.6 percent, which would have enabled the Republicans to gain 15 seats instead of losing five."

    Based on his team's findings, Patterson had advice for House candidates in 2004.

    "They need to invest a great deal of time and effort into choosing a few issues with which they have some expertise and on which they should have some ownership," he said. "Voters will be wary of candidates who talk about issues their party doesn't own."

    Following this prescription will make a difference at the ballot box, Patterson promised.

    "There's a real meaning to campaigns -- they can persuade voters, so there are electoral payoffs," he said. "The whole ritual of candidates out talking about issues matters in a strategic sense as well as a civic sense."

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