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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

You Say Agendas, I Say Agenda

by Scott Winship
Today I’ll examine the agenda the parties run on in House and Senate races. Or rather the agendas, as no less an authority than the Oxford Dictionaries declares that agendum has gone the way of the dodo, much as datum is in its death throes. (Is it dodos or dodoes, by the way?)
Campaign agendas affect how candidates fare in their elections and thus determine the makeup of legislative bodies. They also affect legislation by setting the broader policy agenda at the federal level, both in the elevation of the issues of victors and in the pressure put on victors to take up opponents’ issues.
These points are made by Tracy Sulkin and Jillian Evans in “Dynamics of Diffusion: Aggregate Patterns in Congressional Campaign Agendas” (American Politics Research, July 2006). And let me just say as a final grammatical gripe, I was really looking forward to writing “[sic]” at the end of that title.
Sulkin and Evans begin with a useful discussion of how candidates strategically choose the issues to run on. In one political science model, the two major parties “own” certain issues. That is to say, they

have reputations for their competence at handling certain issues, “produced by a history of attention, initiative, and innovation toward these problems, which leads voters to believe that one of the parties [and its candidates] is more sincere and committed to doing something about them.” (They are quoting a 1996 paper by John Petrocik.)

Candidates then emphasize the issues their party owns while de-emphasizing those owned by the other candidate’s party. Does this strategy sound familiar? In 2002, Democrats attempted to take national security “off the table” and ran instead on a Medicare drug benefit and other domestic social programs. Indeed this strategy would have been the logical one to follow if voters had prioritized these programs over national security. Unfortunately, as one of my editors, Bill Galston, and his coauthor Elaine Kamarck have illustrated, that was not the case. When the issues owned by one’s party aren’t as important to voters as the other party’s issues, then the strategy described by Petrocik amounts to reliance on the Myth of Prescription Drugs, in Galston and Kamarck’s pithy phrase. (I suppose I ought to disclose that I was a research assistant on that paper.)
Sulkin and Evans look at House and Senate races from 1984 to 1996, selecting over 1,100 where information on one or both candidates’ priority issues was available from the CQ Weekly Report “Special Election Issue” published just before elections each year. Most of these are House races. The authors found that the three most common issues across the whole period were the economy, the budget, and taxes, and the least common were “family issues”, foreign policy (excluding defense), and (somewhat surprisingly) Social Security and welfare.
Either the economy or the budget was the most common issue in four of the seven years. The environment and “social issues” were the most common in 1990; crime was most common in 1994, the year of the Contract with America. In 1996, taxes were the top issue. Only once did an issue take up more than 20 percent of the agenda – the economy in 1986.
Democrats picked up House seats in 1986 and 1988, when the economy was the top issue, in 1990 (social issues and the environment), and 1996 (taxes). Republicans picked up House seats in 1984, 1992, and 1994, when the top issues were the budget, the economy, and crime (respectively). So issue ownership seems important, but certainly isn’t the end all, be all of successful campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, given the extent to which Democratic candidates rely on issues rather than character, they tended to have more priority issues than Republicans did per candidate, and their agenda as a party is less focused than that of Republicans. Furthermore, the disparity between the parties grew after 1988 as Republicans became more focused.
Top issues for the Democrats during this period included the economy, the environment, defense, and the budget. Among Republicans, the most common issues also included the budget and the economy, as well as taxes. While those three were priority issues in twenty-five percent or more of Republican campaigns during the period, no issue was featured in that many campaigns among Democrats. Six issues (out of sixteen) were featured in no more than five percent of Republican campaigns; just four issues were that rare among Democrats. Relatedly, House Democrats were more likely than Republicans to emphasize nine issues, but on only two of these nine were they also more likely to emphasize the issue in the Senate. On the other hand, House Republicans were more likely than Democrats to emphasize three issues, but on all three they were also more likely than the Democrats to emphasize the issue in the Senate too. These figures could be evidence that the Democratic coalition is less cohesive than its Republican counterpart. Different Congressional districts and states have different priority issues among Democrats and different issues are given importance by Democrats – relative to the attention they receive by Republicans – in the House than in the Senate. This diversity likely is also reflected in Congressional votes and in presidential campaign agendas.
I take from this paper the conclusion that poor messaging on the Democrats’ part, the complaint that no one knows what we stand for, and even inadequate party discipline compared with Republicans may be fundamentally rooted in the disparate agendas espoused throughout the Party. Whether this problem reflects a coalition that is more diverse than that of Republicans, more intransigence within party ranks, or just less willingness to prioritize, is an important question. I’ll add it to my agendum.

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