The Determinants of Congressional Voting

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Principal investigator:

Kathleen Donovan

Stony Brook University

Sample size: 876

Field period: 5/27/2011-10/19/2011


One particularly influential theory of Congressional behavior, cartel theory, suggests that parties in Congress act to develop a “brand name” with voters through legislative victories (Cox and McCubbins 2005, 2007). Implicit in cartel theory is the assumption that individual voters reward members in response to legislative wins by parties in Congress. Recent work, however, suggests that it is the legislative success of the president that influences the electoral success of legislators (Lebo and O'Geen 2011). Such findings present a challenge to conventional wisdom about congressional behavior but are limited to conclusions in the aggregate. The question remains: do individual voters electorally reward or punish legislators based on the relative legislative success of the president or of parties in Congress? To answer this question, we design and conduct a survey experiment with a nationally representative sample to investigate the effects of differing cues about legislative success on individual voters' electoral preferences. In particular, we compare how individuals react to the legislative success of the president as opposed to the success of a congressional party.


H1: Electoral rewards and punishments will be greater when a congressman votes on a bill backed by the President than when she votes on a bill backed by party leaders in Congress.

H2: We expect that voters will respond more strongly to the actions of their congressmen when confronted with disliked legislative outcomes – that is, the congressman facilitates success by the opposition and/or prevents presidential success when the president is a co-partisan then when a representative supports and ultimately facilitates passage of preferred legislation and/or prevents legislative success by the opposition.

H3: Prevention of legislative success by the opposition should be rewarded more than helping to pass legislation by one’s own party.

H4: Electoral rewards and punishments are greater when a bill passes than when the congressman merely casts a symbolic vote in support of or against legislation.

H5: Voters care more about presidential success relative to the success of the party in Congress because of greater general interest among the public in the president relative to Congress

Experimental Manipulations

1) Whether the congressmen votes for or against a bill
2) Whether the bill is backed by the President or by Congress
3) Whether the bill passes or fails


Change in voting likelihood (postvote-prevote)

Summary of Results

We also find that when a congressman prevents passage of desired legislation, she is electorally punished much more when it is backed by the president than when it is backed by parties in Congress. In addition, congressmen are electorally rewarded more for successfully preventing legislative success by the opposition when the bill is sponsored by the president than when it is sponsored by party leaders. In addition, citizens have greater interest in the affairs of the President than of Congress.

Additional Information

The British data come from a major survey of foreign policy attitudes, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (RES 062-23-1952), into which these and other experiments were embedded. By the end of 2012, the data will be archived and available via the Economic & Social Data Service (


Donovan, K.M., A.J. O'Geen & M.J. Lebo. The Electoral Consequences of Legislative Success. Presented at the Annual Midwest Political Science Conference, April 12th-15th, 2012.