Congressional Campaigns in the United States

From the lecture series: Understanding the US Government

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

It costs a lot of money to win a congressional seat. There are specific organizations that coordinate and manage the congressional campaigns. It is interesting to learn how these campaigns work, and understand if they have any impact on the outcome of an election.

A banner design with US flag on top and 'Vote' written below it.
Congressional elections have been getting more and more expensive. (Image: infostocker/Shutterstock)

Raising Money for Congressional Campaigns

The two major political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have specific organizations to coordinate congressional campaigns. The House and the Senate each have Republican and Democratic groups.

The primary role of these groups is to raise money for congressional candidates and funnel the money to the particular races where the party seeks to put emphasis.

Sometimes these groups are also involved with overall strategy, developing campaign messaging, and recruiting candidates. In the House they are called the D-triple-C, for Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the NRCC, for the National Republican Congressional Committee. In the Senate they are known as the DSCC, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and the NRSC, for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

When donors seek to support candidates in an election, giving to one of these committees is one of their several options.

Learn more about how the federal government operates.

Using Funds for Campaigns

Hand holding a loudspeaker with dollar bills flying out of it.
A large amount of money is spent on buying TV airtime and placing ads in various print, radio, television, and online outlets. (Image: ImageFlow/Shutterstock)

By far, the largest expenditure that campaigns make is for media.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, about half of the more than $5 billion spent on congressional elections in 2018 was for media.

Campaigns put resources into producing advertising, buying television airtime, and placing ads in various print, radio, television, and online outlets. The other half of the $5 billion was spent on hiring consultants, campaign staff, fundraising, and the administrative costs of running a campaign.

Effect of Campaigns on Election Outcome

Research shows that when a race is not close, and at least one of the candidates is very well known, any amount of campaigning done by either side is not very likely to affect the outcome of a race.

However, in races that are close and in what is called low-information elections—meaning voters do not, in general, know that much about the candidates or the issues in a race—campaigns can have a big effect in determining the outcome.

Compared to presidential elections, congressional elections tend to be lower information and not very close, so the importance of campaigning is determined on more of a case-by-case basis when influencing the outcome of a congressional election.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The most salient change in recent years in congressional campaigns is that they have become increasingly nationalized. This means that campaigns for US House and Senate seats are increasingly more about national political trends than they are about local issues.

These days, people tend to talk about wave elections, meaning that one party or the other is likely to pick up many more seats relative to the opposing party because national political trends and issues favor one party over the other.

This is a pretty big shift from how it used to be. From the 1960s until at least the turn of the century, congressional campaigns were increasingly candidate-centered. This means that candidates tended to focus on their own characteristics, personal stances, and local issues to draw support from their districts and states. Party labels were less and less helpful to candidates during this era because parties were increasingly associated with distasteful politics.

But, as we entered an era of increased polarization, and the effects of partisanship fed on themselves and became amplified, party labels became an increasingly important signal for candidates, and national trends became more influential in determining election outcomes.

These features of Congress play off one another. The loss of any electoral advantage because of incumbency has declined over the same period that candidate-centered campaigns have gone to the wayside. Over the same period, the cost of campaigning has skyrocketed, and all of this correlates with increased polarization.

Learn more about the roles of government.

Gerrymandering in Elections

Gerrymandering refers to the redrawing of congressional district lines in a way that advantages one group over another.

A 2020 census form with a pen on top and US flag in the background.
The United States conducts a census every 10 years. (Image: Maria Dryfhout/Shutterstock)

Every 10 years, the United States conducts a census. One of the purposes of the census is to determine the population of each state. When the government knows how many people live in each state, they plug that number into an algorithm that tells them how many congressional districts that state should receive.

Since 1929, the number of seats in the House has been fixed at 435, and each congressional district is supposed to have about the same number of people in it, as mandated by law.

Congressional Districts in the United States

Today, each congressional district has around 750,000 people in it, but there is a fair amount of variation around that number. For example, according to the 2010 census, four states have total populations that are less than this amount: Alaska, Vermont, North Dakota, and Wyoming.

Another three states have populations larger than 750,000, but not large enough to warrant two House districts, and so Montana, Delaware, and South Dakota also only have one representative in the House. But this means that Montana, for example, has close to 1 million people but only one very large congressional district in both population and square miles.

There are also six American units that have representation in the House, but not the Senate, and while these six representatives can vote in committees, they do not have floor voting rights. These people who live in the areas are American citizens but are not fully represented in government.

One of these, the US territory of Puerto Rico, has more than 3.7 million citizens, enough to warrant about four districts and has a population larger than 22 states.

The same is true for Americans living in the District of Columbia, the nation’s capital, which has over 600,000 residents and could be a district that is fully represented in Congress, but it’s not.

Also, the Americans living in Guam, the US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands have non-voting representatives in the House, but not full representation.

Learn more about how a bill becomes a law.

Drawing District Lines

Now, once the census determines how many districts each state gets, states legislatures decide how to draw the lines for each of those districts.

This can be a very contentious process, and there is considerable variance across states in how this is done. Historically, states have used particular characteristics of the population on which to base decisions about district lines, including race and partisanship.

Common Questions about Congressional Campaigns in the United States

Q: What is done with the money that is raised for congressional candidates?

Congressional campaigns use the funds and resources into producing advertising. They also spend on hiring consultants, campaign staff, fundraising, and the administrative costs of running a campaign.

Q: What is a low-information election?

In low-information elections, voters do not, in general, know much about the candidates or the issues in a race.

Q: What are wave elections?

Wave elections mean that one party or the other is likely to pick up many more seats relative to the opposing party because national political trends and issues favor one party over the other.

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