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The Electoral Consequences of Size in American Politics


There are two philosophies for how elected officials should posture to voters. One approach holds that officials should appeal to the centrists in their district, while another suggests that they should ignore the middle and appeal to the partisan base. In this book, I posit that the number of citizens living within an electoral district determines the viability of each strategy. When a district has a low population, the quality of “representational relationship” is high and the average citizen has an incentive to participate in democratic elections. In this context, public officials should posture to the centrists in order to capture the median voter. But when a district is very populous, there is little value in engaging in democracy for the average citizen. Here, it makes sense for officials to appeal to the partisans, who are more likely to turnout to vote.

I outline a theory of size and electoral engagement that holds that, as an electoral district population increases, the electorate becomes less engaged in elections, such that fewer citizens turnout to vote and support candidates. I test the empirical implications of this theory with a number of analyses. My analysis of thousands of returns from national, state, and local elections in America shows that size depresses voter turnout. I observe similar effects on campaign contributions during U.S. Senate elections. The effects of size on voter engagement have implications for how legislators behave strategically in order to secure reelection. I find that senators discount the views of their states’ median citizen as the size of their state increases.

This analysis has far-reaching implications for the study of democracy beyond the context of American politics. The primary contribution of this book is that it provides a rigorously-tested, logically-grounded theoretical framework that explains the role of population size in structuring political behavior on both sides of the representational relationship.

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