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Union University Department of Political Science
Department of Political Science

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Evans Presents Paper on Partisan Waves and Congressional Retirement

Jan 26, 2014

Do you ever notice that when a Congressman or Senator announces their retirement that they always tend to say that they want to spend time with family or begin a new chapter in their life? Well many times, they do this because they fear they may lose their race for reelection. Just recently, Scott Matheson (D-UT) and Mike McIntyre (D-NC)announced their retirements with that justification. Yet, they both represent districts that Mitt Romney won by double digits and the president and his health care package are very unpopular which, more likely than not, may be the final push that causes them to lose office.

This January, Dr. Evans presented a paper that discussed how the political environment can influence retirement decisions of politicians. His work builds on Jacobson and Kernell's strategic politician theory that says that politicians consult the political environment to decide whether to run for reelection or not. The idea is that members of Congress constantly take the temperature of their constituents to see how their approval of a president of their party will influence their electoral prospects because all voters take into account the party record of an incumbent when making voting career decisions. This theory explains why incumbents of one party tend to retire at the same time while strong challengers from the opposite party tend to run.

We can see this most recently in the 2006 and 2008 elections when Republicans retired rather than face the consequences of supporting an unpopular President Bush and Democrats flocked to retire in 2010 because President Obama, and his health care policy in particular, were very unpopular. The fact that incumbents may retire for fear of defeat is important for American democracy. Today, voluntary retirement is the major cause of turnover in Congress. The fear is that if members can retire whenever they want, that our government is an elite-driven government that may not reflect our interests. However if politicians retire for fear of electoral retribution, then our democracy is responsive to the public and our policy may better reflect the public consensus.

Dr. Evans's paper found support for this theory on the individual level for the first time. Most previous papers just used a variable that reflects serving in the president's party. Dr. Evans believe this measurement is mistaken in that it treats all members of a president's party as equally susceptible to a partisan wave. Dr. Evans argues that some members are vulnerable than others. Members in marginal districts or districts that favor the other party are more in-tune with their constituents because they must be and so they see the wave coming before anyone else and retire. Older members have less energy so a more difficult reelection race may tax them to the point they retire rather than face a difficult reelection. Senior members who have been looking for something different to do with their life because they have been in office a long time may retire when a wave hits because the wave is the extra incentive to retire while easy reelections given them reasons to continue in office. Finally, Dr. Evans argues that members of the minority party are more likely to retire because the probability of becoming the majority party is less in the near future which means that service will be less valuable because of a lesser ability to achieve their policy goals.

Using a data set of every Congressional decision to retire since 1953, Evans tests his hypothesis with a unique measure of the political environment that encompasses presidential approval, the economy, and other factors that may influence an election like scandal, ideological extremism, etc. His results show that partisan waves lead members in vulnerable districts, senior members, and members of the minority to retire. Marginal members work hard to serve their district and most likely do not face a fundamental problem like representing a district that favors the other party which allows them to remain in office. Older members probably do not retire because their longevity probably reflects representing a safe district that they do not have to work hard to remain electorally secure.