The Electoral Consequences of Size in American Politics. University of California Irvine, 2016.


Charles Anthony Smith (co-chair)

Anthony J. McGann (co-chair, University of Strathclyde)

Rein Taagepera

Marek Kaminski


There are two philosophies for how elected officials should posture to voters. One approach holds that officials should appeal to the centrists in their district, while another suggests that a legislator should ignore the middle and appeal to the partisan base. I posit that size determines the viability of each strategy. Because the number of constituents living within a district imposes physical limits on the accessibility of a representative to the public, it determines the quality of representational relationship and the value of democratic engagement for the average citizen.

I outline a theory of size and electoral engagement that holds that, as district population increases, the electorate becomes less engaged in elections, such that fewer citizens turnout to vote and support candidates. I test the empirical implications of this theory with an analysis of thousands of returns from national, state, and local elections in America. My results show that size depresses voter turnout. I observe similar effects on campaign financing by the public during US Senate elections. In large states, fewer citizens donate to candidates, and candidates receive less money per capita in “small” donations. The effects of size on voter engagement have implications for how legislators behave strategically in order to secure reelection. In the Senate, I find that legislators discount the views of the district median in favor of extremists within their base as the size of their state increases.

This analysis has implications for the study of democracy beyond the context of American politics. The primary contribution of this book is that it provides a rigorously tested, logically grounded theoretical framework that explains the role of population variation in structuring political behavior in both sides of the representational relationship.