A Minute With...

Tracy Sulkin, expert on legislative politics

10/30/2012  8:00 am

Can the promises of politicians ever be believed? Very often the answer is yes, says political scientist Tracy Sulkin. In her 2011 book “The Legislative Legacy of Congressional Campaigns,” she makes the case that congressional candidates’ words generally match their deeds in office. Her research for the book involved analyzing campaign ads from the 1998, 2000 and 2002 elections and then matching them with legislators’ records. With this year’s election fast approaching, Sulkin discussed her research with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

Just to be clear, what kinds of promises are you talking about and what qualifies as keeping them?

image of professor tracy sulkinPromises in this case include any issue the candidate discussed in his or her campaign advertisements. In congressional races, it is not common for candidates to use specific promise-making language, but most do discuss substantive issues. To follow through on a campaign promise requires that the legislator do something tangible on that issue by the next campaign – introducing or co-sponsoring a bill.

Does being more specific about an issue, as in having a detailed plan, make a candidate any more likely to pursue that issue as a legislator?

Interestingly, no. It is common to equate specificity with sincerity, assuming, for instance, that a candidate who lays out a plan for dealing with environmental issues is more intent on action than one who claims to want to “conserve the environment.” My study indicates that this is not the case. Compared to candidates who did not discuss an issue, those candidates who discussed it, be it vaguely or specifically, were more active on it in the next Congress. But there is no difference between those who were vague and those who were specific. It turns out that this is because specificity is a reaction to the competitiveness of the race – candidates in tight races are more likely to make specific appeals – not an indicator of how interested the candidates are in pursuing the issue.

Many members of Congress are in safe seats, free from serious challenge by a candidate from the other party. It’s tempting to think they would be less motivated about following through on promises. Is that the case?

Just the opposite, in fact. It is often the safer legislators who do the best job at promise-keeping, following through on their campaign appeals at higher rates than their more vulnerable peers. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive, but the logic becomes clearer if we ask ourselves why some legislators are safer than others in the first place. Savvy legislators may be better able to see the benefits of promise-keeping – or are more strategic in their campaigns, focusing on issues on which they know they can demonstrate real action – and so engage in it at higher rates.

My results show that this “good” behavior pays off; representatives and senators who keep their promises do better in the next election. Thus, they are returned to office with an incentive to continue this responsiveness. If we take a snapshot view at any one point in time, we will therefore observe a positive relationship between electoral security and promise-keeping. Of course, there is a small group of very, very safe members of Congress who consistently run unopposed or with only very token opposition, and, for them, rates of promise-keeping are relatively low.

Of course, many candidates’ ads are negative ones aimed at disparaging their opponents for their stands or actions on a given issue. Do those ads tell us anything about what the candidate running the ad will do?

Negative ads don’t tell us very much about a candidate’s own priorities. This is one place where my findings correspond closely to the conventional wisdom. For example, candidates who air ads talking about their own views, no matter how vague, on an issue like health care, are more active on it in office than candidates who don’t discuss it. But candidates who only criticize their opponents on an issue are no more active on it than those who did not raise the issue at all.

This does not necessarily mean that the claims in negative ads are inaccurate, but that they don’t carry information about what the winner will do. This is one reason why we might be concerned about the prevalence of negative ads. Most House candidates produce only a small handful of advertisements, so the more they focus on criticizing their opponents, the less voters will learn about what the candidates themselves will do once in Congress.


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