Home > Applying Political Science, Political Campaigns > Candidate Positions and District Competitiveness

Candidate Positions and District Competitiveness

One of the recurring tropes we hear every election cycle is that district-level competition forces candidates to moderate their policy positions (i.e., move to the ideological center). The more competitive a district, the closer the candidates will be on ideological grounds. The less competitive a district, the further away from each other the candidates can be. This line of reasoning led to two recent institutional reforms in California–the Citizens Redistricting Commission and the majority runoff system of elections.

Do we see this relationship this year? Does competition breed ideological proximity? No.

The following graph plots the normalized Democratic presidential vote (NPV) in 2008 against the ideological distance between the candidates running in each House district. If competitiveness bred proximity, the red line in the graph should be u-shaped. As the district moves from safely Republican (extreme negative NPV scores) to competitive (close to zero) to safely Democratic (extreme positive NPV scores), the ideological distance should diminish then grow. Instead, the line is basically flat. The correlation coefficient for the two measures is 0.02. The OLS regression coefficient is 0.001 with a p-value of 0.649. There is no relationship between district competitiveness and the ideological positions of candidates in this graph.

The idea for this graph came from Eric McGhee’s post on the Monkey Cage. The candidate position data come from Boris Shor’s estimates. The presidential vote data come from Daily Kos.


  1. bshor
    November 5, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Great plot! Super clear.

  2. November 5, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Reblogged this on The Musical Art of Politics and commented:
    Interesting. We’ll see how this affects the big day tomorrow.

  3. Eric McGhee
    November 5, 2012 at 9:21 am

    Thanks for running this, Keith! Makes the point very nicely.

  4. November 5, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    Thanks for this! Any idea why this might be the case? Or might it just be an isolated incident?

    • Prof. Keith Smith
      November 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

      As McGhee, Shor, and others have argued (and see the original post on the Monkey Cage that gave rise to the graph), I think the story about candidate positions is more party-based than district-based. Candidates are responding to/positioning themselves in line with the national parties.

  5. Matt Jarvis
    November 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm


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