Michael J. Ensley
Ph.D., Duke University, 2002
My research uses rigorous and advanced statistical methods to analyze how candidates for and members of the U.S. Congress respond to the competing demands of citizens, activists, interests groups, and political parties. In particular, I focus on what criteria citizens use to evaluate congressional candidates, and in turn, how these evaluative processes influence the positions candidates adopt and the decisions congressional incumbents make.
Since Anthony Downs seminal work, An Economic Theory of Democracy, there has been a compelling reason to believe that candidates face strong pressure to converge to the policy position of the average or median voter in the district. Despite its analytical appeal, the median voter theorem has little empirical support. I argue that the lack of candidate convergence can be explained by candidates' need to mobilize campaign resources and voters. In order to attract campaign funds, candidates must offer a distinct position compared to their opponent. Further, these resources are necessary because they can be used to mobilize otherwise apathetic citizens. However, resources alone may not be sufficient because campaign spending is useful only if it conveys a message that excites and motivates citizens to participate. Therefore, candidates face further pressure to offer an ideological position that is distinct from the opponent. While ideology is a significant component of candidates' electoral fortunes, it is not the only important factor. I have and continue to examine how partisanship, congressional job performance, and challenger experience shape the fortunes of congressional incumbents.
In addition to focusing on the link between ideology, partisanship, and candidates' fortunes, my research also tries to develop a more accurate account of the connection between policies and elections. Specifically, I am engaged in research that demonstrates that a multidimensional conception of political attitudes and electoral competition can provide a richer picture of the relationship between legislative action and the demands of the electorate.
I am also involved in several projects focused on the methods used to analyze roll call voting in the U.S. Congress. The research examines how the conventional procedures perform in uncovering the structure and causes underlying legislator behavior. Further, this research considers alternative methods for the analysis of roll calls.