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Uncompetitive Elections and the American Political System

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Publication Date: June 2005

Publisher(s): Cato Institute

Author(s): Patrick Basham; Dennis Polhill

Topic: Politics (Campaigns, lobbying, and pressure groups)

Type: Report


American representative government suffers from the handicap of a largely uncompetitive political system. American politics has fewer and fewer competitive elections. In arguing that political competition matters a great deal, this paper traces the increasing trend toward uncompetitiveness and details the role and nature of incumbency advantage in fostering an uncompetitive political system.

Current redistricting practices and campaign finance regulations, in tandem with publicly financed careerism, have significantly negative consequences for the health of the political system. This study analyzes several of the major instruments of campaign finance regulation, such as contribution limits, public financing, and the ban on soft money, in terms of their relationship to political competition. Simply put, campaign finance regulation and public financing have not improved political competition.

In the past, campaign finance restrictions and taxpayer-subsidized elections have generated unintended consequences. The most recent regulatory round is no exception to that rule. This study also looks at other reforms, namely, term limits and improvements to the redistricting process, in light of their comparatively successful record regarding political competition.