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How have congressional elections changed over time?

Congressional elections have evolved, with presidents now having more control over their party. Voters often penalize party members who don't support their president. Elections have become costlier, with social media speeding up and intensifying conflicts. These changes have transformed the nature of campaigns.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] How have congressional elections changed over time? - Congressional elections used to be separate from the presidential elections. One of the great examples is in 1938, FDR, who we all look back and think of as a president who had such extraordinary power and who could do no wrong, well in 1938 he tried to see if he could exercise that power. So he tried to kick some Democrats out of the Democratic Party who didn't agree with him and he was spectacularly unsuccessful. Lots and lots of the Democrats he put his finger on and told his fellow Democrats, "You vote for my man," and they lost. Other Democrats won and that gives you a sense of how the president, even a popular and successful one, was very separate from his own party. Well, what's happened since then is that presidents have started to have much more control over the members of their own party and voters, who in 1938, thought it was outrageous that a president would force Democrats of his own party to vote the way he wanted them to because they saw such a separation between the Presidency and the Congress. Those voters don't exist much any more. Voters now pay a, penalize, a member of a party who doesn't stick with their president of that same party. So that connectedness tends to create a situation in which congressional elections in the midterms tend to be a referendum on the president even though the president's not on the ballot. What's also the other big change in American politics is the amount of money. In 2018 it's very likely that according to the Center for Responsive Politics five billion dollars will be spent on the election. 10 years ago, in the election of 2008, spending was half that. 2.5 billion dollars and that was a presidential year in which there's more spending. The enormous amount of money means you have more ads, you means you have a whole group of people who's job it is to make decisions that are subtle and complicated and complex seem easy and to intensify the partisan battles between each other. And that also creates a situation in which candidates are always running for office because they're always having to raise the money to pay for all of those ads, and all of those experts, and all of those social media campaigns. Speaking of social media, we now have an instance in which you have real time up or down votes from constituents and people on the sidelines telling members of Congress whether they're doing the right thing or doing the wrong thing, either in office or in elections, and that creates a real time jitteriness to elections. It used to be you could have a long time conversation. Heck when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas debated in those famous Lincoln/Douglas debates for a Senate seat, those debates took place over three hours. Now we have situations where people will flame up for about 20 minutes on Twitter and that's all the time you'll ever see for something to get addressed because 10 more issues have come along in the next 20 minutes. So social media has sped up and intensified the nature of conflict in campaigns and those are some of the big things that have changed in the way we run our congressional campaigns.