If you're living in one of the states with contested Senate elections this year — Alaska, Louisiana, Arkansas, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, etc. — or one of the couple of dozens of battleground House districts, you may be wondering who to vote for. This quiz will ask you about your policy views, and come up with a recommendation based on your values and where you live. Enjoy!
Which candidate should you actually vote for?
It's easy, see. If you usually agree with Democrats, you should vote for the Democrat. If you usually agree with Republicans, you should vote for the Republican. And yet general election campaigns — especially ones fought out in states like Maine or Louisiana whose electorates have a clear tilt toward one party or another — are dedicated to trying to obscure this basic reality. You hear a lot about candidates' personal attributes, about their gaffes, about their families, and about their scandals. The Montana Senate race, for example, was turned upside down when Democrat John Walsh was revealed to have plagiarized his master's thesis.
The revelation doubly transformed the race. On the one hand, it reflected poorly on Walsh and forced him to drop out. On the other hand, the fact that he dropped out transformed the race because he had unique personal attributes — incumbency, a military service record — that made him more electable than any feasible Democratic replacement.
And yet the overwhelming bulk of the evidence is that none of this matters. All you really need to know to decide whether you want to vote for John Walsh or any other congressional candidate is what letter sits next to his name.
It didn't always used to be this way. As this great graphic from Congressional Quarterly shows, decades ago it was common for large minorities of Democrats in both the House and the Senate to break with their parties on legislative votes.
Regardless of personal qualities, a Democrat is going to vote like a Democrat and a Republican will vote like a Republican. A series of charts by political scientist Keith Poole based on his pioneering work with Howard Rosenthal and other co-authors makes the case in more detail and with more complicated math. What they do is record every congressional vote from every congress in a way that lets them plot each member's location in a two-dimensional ideological space. They find that most of American politics can be explained with a single liberal-conservative axis, but that at certain points in time — notably the middle of the 20th century — a second axis related to racial equality issues was also very important.
During the time when the racial axis was scrambled, the parties were not perfectly sorted around liberalism versus conservatism. A lot of southerners with conservatives views on economics were in the Democratic Party for reasons related to white supremacy, and some northerners with moderate views on economics and liberal views on race were Republicans:
This meant that even on core liberal-conservative issues the most liberalRepublicans were often more liberal than the most conservative Democrats:
In that era, you really did need to ask a lot of specific information about a congressional candidate before voting for him. A liberal on economics would usually but not always want to vote for a Democrat. And of course you would have to take the whole second dimension's worth of politics into account as well. How much did you care about racial equality issues that, at the time, were very poorly correlated with partisanship.
These days things are much simpler. Mark Pryor and Mary Landrieu have more liberal voting records than Susan Collins and Kelly Ayotte even though Arkansas and Louisiana have much more conservative electorates than Maine and New Hampshire.
A related, though not logically identical, issue is that over time the number of moderate legislators has declined.
You can see this qualitatively in the Senate representation of a state like Wisconsin or Ohio. These states do not tilt overwhelmingly in favor of one party or another. And since Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin and Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown in Ohio represent the exact same electorate, you might expect to see relatively little partisan divergence between the two pairs as all candidates seek the allegiance of the median voter. But that doesn't happen. Instead, both Baldwin and Brown are staunch liberals while both Johnson and Portman are staunch conservatives.
The nominations process is controlled these days by committed ideological warriors (political scientists Kathleen Bawn, Martin Cohen, David Karol, Seth Masket, Hans Noel, and John Zaller dub them "intense policy-demanders" in an influential article) who form cohesive national networks. Consequently, Wisconsin Democrats nominate people who are a lot like Vermont Democrats and Ohio Republicans nominate people who are a lot like Oklahoma Republicans. Even in an extreme case like Alaska, Democrats put forward a candidate who's more liberal than every single Republican in the Senate.
There's a fair amount not to like about the extreme levels of polarization that this leads to. But one advantage is that it makes voting decisions really simple. Regardless of where you live or who the candidates are, you just find the one that belongs to the party you like better and vote for her.