Voters tend to punish baggage handlers. This is bad news for Dr. Oz
Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz has garnered some media attention recently, thanks to Fetterman’s relentless campaigning against his opponent, mostly because he resides in neighboring New Jersey rather than in the state he represents.
Fetterman aired advert after advert using Oz’s own words to highlight his deep Jersey roots. His campaign launched a petition to nominate Oz to the New Jersey Hall of Fame. Fetterman even enlisted very Jersey celebrities like Snooki from “Jersey Shore” to draw attention to his accusation that Oz is a baggage handler in the Pennsylvania race: a candidate with no genuine connection to an area, who settled there. for the sole purpose of political ambition.
Fetterman’s attacks on Oz may be entertaining, but they’re not unprecedented. Such characterizations can be useful in elections.
Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, won a close race in Montana in 2018 in part by nicknaming his out-of-town opponent “Maryland Matt.” Democrat Joe Manchin held on to a Senate seat in a dark red state for so long by “playing[ing] her West Virginia roots. Meanwhile, Maine Democrat (and Rhode Island native) Sara Gideon has been caught — and ridiculed — wearing a Patagonia fleece in a state that’s home to LL Bean. She lost to Maine native Susan Collins in the 2020 Senate race, even as Joe Biden carried the state by nine points.
Given how strongly modern congressional elections are defined by partisanship and an increasing focus on national rather than local issues, is this kind of messaging really effective as a campaign strategy?
Are voters really still punishing baggage handlers and rewarding candidates with deep ties to their constituencies?
Some policies are local
New research from my forthcoming book, “Home Field Advantage,” shows the answer to be an emphatic “yes.”
In the book, I created a “Local Roots Index” for each modern member of the United States House of Representatives to measure how deeply rooted they are in the geography of the districts they represent. The index is drawn from decades of geographic data on members’ lives before Congress, including whether they were born in their home district, went to school there or owned a local business.
High index scores meant that members had most or all of these life experiences within their district boundaries; low scores meant they had little or no experience of local life in their district.
I’ve found that members of Congress with higher local roots index scores perform much better in their elections than their more “stuffed” colleagues without local roots in their districts. Deep-rooted members are twice as likely to run unopposed in their primary elections, and they significantly outperform their party’s presidential candidates in their constituencies. They win more elections with bigger margins and don’t need to spend as much money to get their victories.
Why do voters care about roots?
Why do voters respond positively to deep-rooted candidates and negatively to their mocking counterparts?
One explanation is that deep roots provide candidates with a number of practical campaign benefits. A deeply rooted candidate tends to have a more intimate knowledge of the district, including its constituency, economy and industries, unique culture, and political climate. Deep-rooted candidates also benefit from naturally higher name recognition in the community, wider social and political networks, and better access to local donors and vendors for their campaigns.
Other work has hypothesized that local roots help candidates tap into a shared identity with their constituents that is less tangible but meaningful. Researchers like Kal Munis have shown that when voters have strong psychological attachments to a particular location, this has major impacts on voting behavior. And in a recent survey I conducted with David Fontana, we found that voters consistently rated US Senate candidates as more reliable and trustworthy, and voted for them at higher rates.
Just as you would trust a true local born and bred to give you advice on where to eat in town rather than someone who has just moved there, voters also trust deep-rooted candidates for the represent in Washington.
“Intimate sympathy” with voters
Political science tells us that voters care about candidates’ roots, and we know a little about why. But should they? Deep ties to a place can create a sense of connection and familiarity that voters value, but at what cost?
On the one hand, it’s natural to wonder whether the flood of media and campaign attention to Oz’s residency status is distracting from a discussion of more pressing issues like the economy, change climate and the state of American democracy. There is also a reasonable fear that a healthy attachment to one’s place of origin may cross the line into outright nativism and the unfair vilification of “outsiders” and immigrants.
On the other hand, the framers of the Constitution designed – for better or for worse – a geographically targeted system of elections and representation. The party is important, but the places are different from each other even though they have similar partisan makeups – think San Francisco and New York – and have different needs. It means having members of Congress who have lived and understand the place they are elected to represent.
As a result, shared local ties could also serve as a line of defense against steadily declining levels of trust in government and politicians. Perhaps locally rooted representation can help imbue a sense of what James Madison and Alexander Hamilton have called “intimate sympathy” with the people – and reinvigorate faith in officials and institutions.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.