Why Politicians Fear Election Reform–And How to Change Their Minds

It’s been nearly 30 years since Tom Mann coined the famous phrase “running scared” to describe the campaign strategy followed by incumbent members of Congress (sorry to make you feel old, Tom!).

Back in his days as a scholar, before he became a policy wonk, Tom was a big player in the
academic debate over incumbency advantage and the “vanishing marginals.” His 1978 book, Unsafe at Any Margin described how members of Congress, even though they seemed assured of victory (given incumbency return rates), behaved as if they might lose at any time, and thus, were more responsive to constituency opinions and electoral pressures that we might otherwise guess.

How does this relate to election reform? We know from all the research that grew out of this very productive period that politicians, such as members of Congress, hate uncertainty. Politicians don’t like reform because, no matter how we tell them a reform may play out, they are certain that they were elected under the old rules, and they aren’t sure about the new rules.

We also know that politicians (all humans, really) are superstitious learners–we attribute success and failure to things that may have no relationship at all to the actual outcomes. This is especially true in the context of a political campaign, where it is nearly impossible to point to one rule or one campaign strategy that translated into their election win. This makes a successful candidate loathe to change anything–whether it be distributing matchbooks and pens, or reforming election laws.

For those of us in the election reform community, it’s important that we understand why politicians fear change, and it also makes it important that we have solid empirical research demonstrating how changes will (or will not) change political outcomes. If we don’t, then politicians of both parties will line up and vote down much needed election reforms.

Some of the literature that interested readers may want to track down include Mann’s book (which I think came out of his much less well-titled 1977 PhD dissertation “Candidate Saliency and Congressional Elections,” University of Michigan Political Science), an unfairly neglected (and out of print) book by Tom’s dissertation advisor, John Kingdon, Candidates for Office: Beliefs and Strategies, and Barbara Hershey’s first book (another dissertation written under Kingdon) The Making of Campaign Strategy and her second book Running for Office: The Political Education of Campaigners. This latter has an excellent treatment of superstitious learning.