Due to the Fetterman campaign’s relentless teasing of his opponent, primarily for residing in neighboring New Jersey rather than the state he’s running to represent, the race for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania between Democrats John Fetterman and Republicans Mehmet Oz has recently attracted a lot of media attention.
Oz’s own remarks have been used in numerous advertisements by Fetterman to highlight his strong Jersey heritage. A petition was established by his campaign to suggest Oz for the New Jersey Hall of Fame. To highlight his claim that Oz is a carpetbagger in the Pennsylvania race—a candidate who moved there with no genuine ties to the region and just did so for the sake of political ambition—Fetterman even hired very-Jersey celebs like Snooki of “Jersey Shore.”
Even if Fetterman’s assaults against Oz are funny, they are not unique. Elections can benefit from such categorizations.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, called his out-of-town rival “Maryland Matt” in order to win a close contest in Montana in 2018. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, has maintained his Senate seat in a strongly conservative state for such a long time by “play[ing] up his West Virginia heritage.” While this was going on, Maine Democrat Sara Gideon (a native of Rhode Island) was exposed and mocked for wearing a Patagonia fleece in the renown L.L. Bean state. In the 2020 Senate election, she was defeated by Maine native Susan Collins despite Joe Biden winning the state by nine points.
Is this kind of messaging effective as a campaign tactic given how strongly partisanship defines contemporary congressional elections and the growing emphasis on national rather than local issues?
Voters still penalize shady politicians and favor those with strong ties to their districts, right?
Some politics are regional.
The latest analysis from my upcoming book, “Home Field Advantage,” demonstrates unequivocally that the answer is “yes.”
I developed a “Local Roots Index” for each current U.S. House of Representatives member in the book to assess how firmly planted they are in the geographic regions of the districts they represent. The index drew on decades’ worth of geographic information about the pre-Congress lives of members, such as whether they were born in their home district, attended local schools there, or ran a local business there.
Low index scores indicated that members had little to no local life experience within their district, while high index scores indicated that members had the majority or all of these life experiences within the district’s limits.
Compared to their more “carpetbagging” peers who lack local roots in their districts, members of Congress with higher Local Roots Index scores fared far better in their elections. Deeply embedded members fare substantially better in their districts than their party’s presidential nominees and are twice as likely to run unopposed in their primary elections. They need less money to win elections and win more of them with wider margins of victory.
Why are roots important to voters?
Why do people react favorably to candidates with strong support and adversely to their carpetbagger counterparts?
One rationale is that strong foundations provide candidates with a number of useful campaign advantages. A candidate with a strong foundation typically has a deeper understanding of the district, including its voters, economics, and industry, as well as its distinctive culture and political atmosphere. Deeply embedded candidates also benefit from more extensive social and political networks, stronger name recognition in the community, and easier access to local vendors and fundraisers for their campaigns.
According to other research, having local roots enables candidates to connect with people on a more abstract but significant level through a shared identity. Researchers like Kal Munis have demonstrated that voters’ voting behavior is significantly impacted by their strong psychological ties to a particular location. And in a recent poll that David Fontana and I conducted, we discovered that people regularly viewed candidates for the U.S. Senate who were from their own country as more personable and trustworthy, and they also voted for them more frequently.
Voters trust firmly entrenched politicians to represent them in Washington, just as you would trust a true born-and-raised local to offer you recommendations about where to eat in town over someone who just moved there.
“Intimate affection” for the electorate
According to political science, voters are interested in the candidates’ backgrounds, and we have some idea of why. But ought they to? Voters may value the sense of familiarity and connection that comes from having strong ties to a place, but at what cost?
On the one hand, it’s understandable to question whether the influx of coverage over Oz’s residency status in the media and during the campaign is detracting from discussions about matters that are more urgent, such as the state of the economy, climate change, and American democracy. A healthy commitment to one’s hometown may transcend the line into blatant nativism and unjust vilification of “outsiders” and immigrants, which is another legitimate worry.
On the other hand, a regionally oriented system of elections and representation was created by the Constitution’s framers, for better or worse. Party matters, but various places have different demands even if they share a similar partisan mix, as in the case of San Francisco and New York City. This entails having representatives in Congress who are familiar with and have lived in the area they were chosen to serve.
Shared local links could therefore act as a line of defense against the progressively eroding levels of confidence in politics and the administration. Perhaps locally rooted representation can foster what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton referred to as a “intimate sympathy” with the populace – and rekindle faith in public officials and institutions.
Charles R. Hunt is a political science assistant professor at Boise State University.
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