Partisan Polarization and Congressional Accountability in House Elections


  • I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, Gary Jacobson, the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, and the Roper Center for access to their data, and Baruch College and the Professional Staff Congress of the City University of New York for research support.

David R. Jones is Professor of Political Science, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, Box B5280, One Bernard Baruch Way, New York, NY 10010 (


Early research led scholars to believe that institutional accountability in Congress is lacking because public evaluations of its collective performance do not affect the reelection of its members. However, a changed partisan environment along with new empirical evidence raises unanswered questions about the effect of congressional performance on incumbents' electoral outcomes over time. Analysis of House reelection races across the last several decades produces important findings: (1) low congressional approval ratings generally reduce the electoral margins of majority party incumbents and increase margins for minority party incumbents; (2) partisan polarization in the House increases the magnitude of this partisan differential, mainly through increased electoral accountability among majority party incumbents; (3) these electoral effects of congressional performance ratings hold largely irrespective of a member's individual party loyalty or seat safety. These findings carry significant implications for partisan theories of legislative organization and help explain salient features of recent Congresses.