Senate candidates gain by distancing themselves from same-party president

December 23, 2020

“If I were to make recommendations talking to a [Senate candidate], I’d say, ‘You absolutely should distance yourself from your party’s president, because it does help,’” one researcher said. (Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash)

U.S. Senate candidates stand to gain an edge by shunning their party’s sitting president if they’re running for office in a state where opposition voters are clustered, according to new research. 

In an article published in December in The Journal of Legislative Studies, co-authors Neilan S. Chaturvedi and Chris Haynes found survey evidence on voters’ preferences, excitement levels and overall assessments regarding Senate candidates that suggested that the office-seekers could see a small but meaningful boost by distancing themselves from presidents in their own party, as doing so could increase their appeal among voters who oppose the commander-in-chief.

The same research found that candidates taking an ambiguous position vis-à-vis the president probably won’t earn votes for themselves, and even risk somewhat turning off their voting base.

Mounting political polarization has meant that tactics aimed at potential crossover voters often won’t move the needle substantially, Chaturvedi told The Academic Times, noting that it’s getting “so much more difficult to get those crossover voters to actually turn on your behalf.”

He and Haynes found through surveys conducted in 2015 and 2016 that “eschewing” then-President Barack Obama helped a hypothetical Democratic candidate running in a swing state, which swapped allegiance between the two major parties over the three election cycles prior to 2016, or a red state, which voted for the Republican candidate over the prior three election cycles, against a hypothetical Republican who “strongly opposed” Obama.

The researchers considered three broad strategies Democratic Senate candidates could take as a means of positioning themselves with respect to President Obama — they could “embrace” the party’s de facto leader, “eschew” or publicly oppose him, or take an ambiguous stance that could include both supporting and opposing him on various issues.

Chaturvedi and Haynes assessed the effectiveness of each tactic in the eyes of 1,468 U.S.-based respondents recruited with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for an online survey experiment. The respondents were randomly given one of three different visual guides to the Democratic candidates’ positions on Obama relative to the Republican contender. The “embracing” candidate was said to have responded “very supportive” to a question about their position on Obama, while the “eschewing” candidate answered “somewhat opposed” to the same question and the ambiguous candidate “talked about agreements and disagreements with Obama but did not give a clear answer.”

The respondents were then asked questions gauging their voting preference, their opinions of the candidate and their excitement about voting for the candidate. By comparing the percentages of respondents favoring the candidate in each different scenario, Chaturvedi and Haynes could ultimately analyze the levels of support the candidates gained among survey participants from across the political spectrum and in swing, red and blue states.

Democrats running in red states and swing states didn’t see gains from taking an ambiguous position vis-à-vis Obama, the survey found, with “no significant gains among voters in terms of vote choice” and only marginal impacts on voters’ opinions or their excitement to vote for them. And the strategy showed signs that it could turn off voters in the Democratic base who feel they don’t know how the candidate would or wouldn’t back the president’s agenda.

But when the candidate opposed Obama in a context where Republicans made up a large chunk of the electorate, there was evidence that the tactic was potent enough to give the Democrat a winning edge.

While the strategy of opposing Obama reduced excitement among voters in the Democratic base, Chaturvedi said, that dip could very likely be offset by a bigger spike in excitement among Republican-leaning voters. “The excitement score [among Democrats] drops, but it’s still within the same range,” he continued, and “not to an extent where they’re not going to turn out for you.”

According to Chaturvedi, the finding lends some support to the proximity theory of voting behavior within political science, which holds that the candidate whose views are closest to the majority of voters will win the most votes.

“The payoff [to moving closer to the voters regarding support for Obama] isn’t huge,” but it is real, he said, pointing out that red- and swing-state Democrats who are already popular may have gotten meaningful boosts from “running hard against Obama.”

But it won’t do much for candidates who face longer odds in their home states, where Chaturvedi said, "The dynamics have changed to such a crazy extent in terms of polarization that [while] the strategy works … it’s just tinkering at the margins.”

While the payoff effect from a distancing strategy is likely only decisive in close races, Chaturvedi said, he would tell a candidate he was advising to come out against the same-party president in a scenario where marginal moves could make or break a bid for the upper chamber of Congress.

“If I were to make recommendations talking to a [Senate candidate], I’d say, ‘You absolutely should distance yourself from your party’s president, because it does help,’” Chaturvedi said, adding that while it may not put that candidate over the top, “It will probably net you some votes” in a closely contested race.

Chaturvedi and Haynes have data to suggest the same dynamics hold for Republican Senate candidates vis-à-vis their stances on President Donald Trump. In a 2016 survey, they found that GOP candidates in blue states and swing states benefited from shunning Trump, “sometimes by a larger margin” than Democrats in the analogous position, according to Chaturvedi.

As for the 2020 election results, Chaturvedi said it was the power of embracing Trump that turned what might have been major Democratic victories into blowouts in favor of GOP incumbents such as Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

“This should have been a blowout election for Democrats, but that ‘embrace’ strategy really did help and get Republican voters out in these red states,” he said.

The article, “Strategic position taking: optimal strategy for Senate candidates in the Obama era,” was published on Dec. 10 in The Journal of Legislative Studies and was co-authored by Neilan S. Chaturvedi, Cal Poly Pomona and Chris Haynes, University of New Haven.

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