Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-x5gtn Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-27T14:40:42.278Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Measuring the Competitiveness of Elections

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 July 2019

Gary W. Cox
Professor, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, 100 Encina Hall West, 616 Serra St., Stanford, CA 94305, USA. Email:
Jon H. Fiva
Professor, Department of Economics, BI Norwegian Business School, 0442 Oslo, Norway. Email:
Daniel M. Smith*
Associate Professor, Department of Government, Harvard University, 1737 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA. Email:


The concept of electoral competition plays a central role in many subfields of political science, but no consensus exists on how to measure it. One key challenge is how to conceptualize and measure electoral competitiveness at the district level across alternative electoral systems. Recent efforts to meet this challenge have introduced general measures of competitiveness which rest on explicit calculations about how votes translate into seats, but also implicit assumptions about how effort maps into votes (and how costly effort is). We investigate how assumptions about the effort-to-votes mapping affect the units in which competitiveness is best measured, arguing in favor of vote-share-denominated measures and against vote-share-per-seat measures. Whether elections under multimember proportional representation systems are judged more or less competitive than single-member plurality or runoff elections depends directly on the units in which competitiveness is assessed (and hence on assumptions about how effort maps into votes).

Copyright © The Author(s) 2019. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Society for Political Methodology.

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


Authors’ note: We thank Georgina Evans for research assistance, Royce Carroll, Olle Folke, Torben Iversen, Mark Kayser, Vincent Pons, Chi-lin Tsai, Janne Tukiainen, referees, and audience participants at the European Political Science Association meeting, Southern Political Science Association meeting, and UCSD for helpful comments, and Peter Selb for kindly sharing his replication data and codes. Replication materials for this article are available at the Political Analysis Dataverse as Cox, Fiva, and Smith (2019b).

Contributing Editor: Lonna Atkeson


Abou-Chadi, T., and Orlowski, M.. 2016. “Moderate as Necessary: The Role of Electoral Competitiveness and Party Size in Explaining Parties’ Policy Shifts.” The Journal of Politics 78(3):868881.Google Scholar
Adcock, R., and Collier, D.. 2001. “Measurement Validity: A Shared Standard for Qualitative and Quantitative Research.” American Political Science Review 95(3):529546.Google Scholar
Aldrich, J. 1993. “Rational Choice and Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 37(1):246278.Google Scholar
Bhatti, Y., Dahlgaard, J. O., Hansen, J. H., and Hansen, K. M.. 2019. “Is Door-to-Door Canvassing Effective in Europe? Evidence from a Meta-study across Six European Countries.” British Journal of Political Science 49(1):279290.Google Scholar
Blais, A., and Lago, I.. 2009. “A General Measure of District Competitiveness.” Electoral Studies 28:94100.Google Scholar
Carson, J. L., Engstrom, E. J., and Roberts, J. M.. 2007. “Candidate Quality, the Personal Vote, and the Incumbency Advantage in Congress.” American Political Science Review 101(2):289301.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W. 1987. The Efficient Secret: The Cabinet and the Development of Political Parties in Victorian England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W. 1988. “Closeness and Turnout: A Methodological Note.” The Journal of Politics 50(3):768775.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W. 1999. “Electoral Rules and the Calculus of Mobilization.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 24(3):387419.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W. 2015. “Electoral Rules, Mobilization, and Turnout.” Annual Review of Political Science 18(1):4968.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W., Rosenbluth, F. M., and Thies, M. F.. 1998. “Mobilization, Social Networks, and Turnout.” World Politics 50(3):447474.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W., Fiva, J. H., and Smith, D. M.. 2016. “The Contraction Effect: How Proportional Representation Affects Mobilization and Turnout.” The Journal of Politics 78(4):12491263.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W., Fiva, J. H., and Smith, D. M.. 2019a. “Parties, Legislators, and the Origins of Proportional Representation.” Comparative Political Studies 52(1):102133.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W., Fiva, J. H., and Smith, D. M.. 2019b. “Replication Data for: Measuring the Competitiveness of Elections.”, Harvard Dataverse, V1.Google Scholar
Cox, G. W., and Munger, M. C.. 1989. “Closeness, Expenditures, and Turnout in the 1982 U.S. House Elections.” American Political Science Review 83(1):217231.Google Scholar
Dahl, R. A. 1971. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Dalton, R. J., Farrell, D. M., and McAllister, I.. 2013. Political Parties & Democratic Linkage: How Parties Organize Democracy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Denver, D. T., and Hands, H. T. G.. 1974. “Marginality and Turnout in British General Elections.” British Journal of Political Science 4(1):1735.Google Scholar
Downs, A. 1957. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York, NY: Harper and Row.Google Scholar
Dropp, K., and Peskowitz, Z.. 2012. “Electoral Security and the Provision of Constituency Service.” The Journal of Politics 74(1):220234.Google Scholar
Feigenbaum, J. J., Fouirnaies, A., and Hall, A. B.. 2017. “The Majority-Party Disadvantage: Revising Theories of Legislative Organization.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 12(3):269300.Google Scholar
Fiorina, M. P. 1973. “Electoral Margins, Constituency Influence, and Policy Moderation: A Critical Assessment.” American Politics Quarterly 1(4):479498.Google Scholar
Fiva, J. H., and Smith, D. M.. 2017. “Norwegian Parliamentary Elections, 1906–2013: Representation and Turnout Across Four Electoral Systems.” West European Politics 40(6):13731391.Google Scholar
Folke, O. 2014. “Shades of Brown and Green: Party Effects in Proportional Election Systems.” Journal of the European Economic Association 12(5):13611395.Google Scholar
Franklin, M. N. 2004. Voter Turnout and the Dynamics of Electoral Competition in Established Democracies since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Freier, R., and Odendahl, C.. 2015. “Do Parties Matter? Estimating the Effect of Political Power in Multi-party Systems.” European Economic Review 80:310328.Google Scholar
Gerring, J., Palmer, M., Teorell, J., and Zarecki, D.. 2015. “Demography and Democracy: A Global, District-level Analysis of Electoral Contestation.” American Political Science Review 109(3):574591.Google Scholar
Griffin, J. D. 2006. “Electoral Competition and Democratic Responsiveness: A Defense of the Marginality Hypothesis.” The Journal of Politics 68(4):911921.Google Scholar
Grofman, B., and Selb, P.. 2009. “A Fully General Index of Political Competition.” Electoral Studies 28(2):291296.Google Scholar
Grofman, B., and Selb, P.. 2011. “Turnout and the (Effective) Number of Parties at the National and District Levels: A Puzzle-Solving Approach.” Party Politics 17(1):93117.Google Scholar
Hall, A. B., and Snyder, J. M. Jr. 2015. “How Much of the Incumbency Advantage is Due to Scare-Off?.” Political Science Research and Methods 3(3):493514.Google Scholar
Herrera, H., Morelli, M., and Palfrey, T.. 2014. “Turnout and Power Sharing.” The Economic Journal 124(574):F131F162.Google Scholar
Karp, J. A., Banducci, S. A., and Bowler, S.. 2008. “Getting Out the Vote: Party Mobilization in Comparative Perspective.” British Journal of Political Science 38(1):91112.Google Scholar
Kayser, M. A., and Lindstädt, R.. 2015. “A Cross-National Measure of Electoral Competitiveness.” Political Analysis 23:242253.Google Scholar
Kotakorpi, K., Poutvaara, P., and Terviö, M.. 2017. “Returns to Office in National and Local Politics: A Bootstrap Method and Evidence from Finland.” The Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 33(3):413442.Google Scholar
Lizzeri, A., and Persico, N.. 2004. “Why did the Elites Extend the Suffrage? Democracy and the Scope of Government, with an Application to Britain’s ‘Age of Reform’.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 119(2):707765.Google Scholar
Rainey, C. 2015. “Strategic Mobilization: Why Proportional Representation Decreases Voter Mobilization.” Electoral Studies 37:8698.Google Scholar
Riker, W. H., and Ordeshook, P. C.. 1968. “A Theory of the Calculus of Voting.” American Political Science Review 62:2542.Google Scholar
Schumpeter, J. A. 1942. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. New York and London: Harper & Brothers.Google Scholar
Selb, P. 2009. “A Deeper Look at the Proportionality-Turnout Nexus.” Comparative Political Studies 42(4):527548.Google Scholar
Seymour, C. 1915. Electoral Reform in England and Wales. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Snyder, J. M. Jr, and Strömberg, D.. 2010. “Press Coverage and Political Accountability.” Journal of Political Economy 118(2):355408.Google Scholar
Stokes, S. C., Dunning, T., Nazareno, M., and Brusco, V.. 2013. Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Trochim, W. M. K., and Donnelly, J. P.. 2008. The Research Methods Knowledge Base. 3rd edn.Mason, OH: Atomic Dog/Cengage Learning.Google Scholar
Wagner, A. 2017. “A Micro Perspective on Political Competition: Electoral Availability in the European Electorates.” Acta Politica 52(4):502520.Google Scholar
Supplementary material: File

Cox et al. supplementary material

Cox et al. supplementary material 1

Download Cox et al. supplementary material(File)
File 756.1 KB