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Elections and the Regression Discontinuity Design: Lessons from Close U.S. House Races, 1942–2008

  • Devin Caughey (a1) and Jasjeet S. Sekhon (a2)

Following David Lee's pioneering work, numerous scholars have applied the regression discontinuity (RD) design to popular elections. Contrary to the assumptions of RD, however, we show that bare winners and bare losers in U.S. House elections (1942–2008) differ markedly on pretreatment covariates. Bare winners possess large ex ante financial, experience, and incumbency advantages over their opponents and are usually the candidates predicted to win by Congressional Quarterly's pre-election ratings. Covariate imbalance actually worsens in the closest House elections. National partisan tides help explain these patterns. Previous works have missed this imbalance because they rely excessively on model-based extrapolation. We present evidence suggesting that sorting in close House elections is due mainly to activities on or before Election Day rather than postelection recounts or other manipulation. The sorting is so strong that it is impossible to achieve covariate balance between matched treated and control observations, making covariate adjustment a dubious enterprise. Although RD is problematic for postwar House elections, this example does highlight the design's advantages over alternatives: RD's assumptions are clear and weaker than model-based alternatives, and their implications are empirically testable.

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Political Analysis
  • ISSN: 1047-1987
  • EISSN: 1476-4989
  • URL: /core/journals/political-analysis
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