University of Connecticut

Events Calendar

Issue Distancing in Congressional Elections

Monday, October 17, 2016
12:15pm – 1:30pm

Storrs Campus
Oak 438

Colloquium Event

Issue Distancing in Congressional Elections

John A. Henderson Yale University

Monday, October 17 12:15pm-1:30pm Oak 438

Free and Open to the Public

Abstract: I develop a theory of issue agendas in the campaign. Rather than emphasize a personal vote or partisan record, I argue that polarized candidates craft strategic policy messages to insulate themselves from electoral risk. Candidates do so by prioritizing particular issues to portray themselves as more moderate, and their opponents as more extreme, than the legislative record would indicate. Since voters are aware that certain issue priorities 'go with' each party, candidates can use voter inferences to signal information about future policy commitments without taking specific bill positions. To test this theoretical account, I develop a series of party-inference experiments that assess whether voters can infer candidates' party (and ideology) in positive and negative ads. I find that voters more reliably infer partisanship in negative rather than positive ads, and that this effect is due to counter-stereotypical issue priorities, and not from issue avoidance or any differences across ad tone. To confirm these findings, I present a text-scaling analysis of over 500,000 issue statements collected from a new set of 12,692 ads (Congressional Ads Project) aired in House and Senate races between 1968 and 2008. Here I find candidates increasingly present themselves as moderates, and their opponents as extremists, alongside growing polarization in Congress. This finding provides additional support for the elite-driven account of a representational disconnect in American politics, suggesting possible limits to voters' ability to hold their representatives accountable in contemporary elections.

Speaker Biography: John A. Henderson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. He is also affiliated with the Center for the Study of American Politics, and the Institution for Social and Policy Studies. He studies the consequences of polarization on representation and policymaking in the U.S., as well as the causes of participation and vote choice in congressional and presidential elections. His current empirical research focuses on the growing information disconnect that has emerged over the last forty years as politicians compile increasingly partisan legislative records, yet campaign to distance themselves from their extreme party brands. He also studies sensitivity and matching analysis for instrumental variables and imperfectly randomized experiments, as well as dimensional scaling and analysis of text data.

More information, including working papers, publications, and information on his book project, is available at and

Contact: Prof. Matthew Singer (

Hosted by the Department of Political Science


Prof. Matthew Singer (

Political Science (primary), College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, First Year Programs & Learning Communities, UConn Master Calendar

Control Panel