For the Students: How to Analyze a Congressional District Election

By Josh Franco

Each of us has a community we call home, and every community across the United States is in a congressional district. Congressional districts are political-geographic units, and each is represented by one member of Congress who is elected by the voters residing in the district every two years. Throughout the country, there are 435 Congressional Districts—53 of which are in California alone. For students of political science, the large number of congressional districts can seem daunting at first; but with the right approach, analyzing congressional districts can reveal important information about local politics and elections. This short piece outlines a five-step framework to help students effectively analyze congressional district elections.

Framework for Analyzing Congressional District Elections

Analyzing congressional district elections may sound complicated, but with the right approach, it can be surprisingly simple. There are mountains of information available on congressional elections, but for us to sift through all the information competently and confidently, students need a framework or model to work with. Our framework consists of five parts: geography, voter data, candidates, issues, and polling. Using California’s 50th congressional district as a running example, I will outline the analytical framework below.

Geography

What is geography of the congressional district?

To answer this question, we need a map. There are two reliable resources for congressional district maps: GovTrack and a state’s Secretary of State office or Redistricting Commission.

GovTracks’s “Congressional Districts Map” overlays a layer of congressional district data with a topographical (i.e., one can see contours of mountains) map of the United States. Much like Google Maps, you can zoom in and out. The added benefit is that once one types in their residence address, the map will zoom into their congressional district and list the pictures and names of their US Senators and Congressional district representative.

Californians can visit the California Redistricting Commission’s website, WeDrawTheLines.ca.gov, to view the “Final Certified Congressional Districts” maps.

Voter Data

What is voter data for the congressional district?

Voter data can be aggregated or disaggregated. Aggregated voter data includes the number of registered voters in specific congressional districts. Aggregated voter data is typically available on a state’s Secretary of State website. In California, one  can view Reports of Voter Registration by US Congressional District. According to this report, the 50th Congressional District has 414,235 registered voters: 29.96%, 40.10%, and 23.36% self-identify as Democratic Party, Republican Party, and No Party Preference voters, respectively.

Analyzing congressional district elections may sound complicated, but with the right approach, it can be surprisingly simple.

Disaggregated voter data is group-level or individual-level. Group-level data features information like total number of voters by gender, age, party affiliation, and homeowner status. Individual-level data is a database of every voter in a district. Individual-level data is available to candidates and their campaigns from their country Registrar of Voters (ROV) office and is used to reach out to specific voters.

Group-level data, known as counts, are available from Political Data Inc., a company that specializes in voter data and analysis. Using their counts feature, we can see that in the 50th Congressional District, there are 39,824 voters who are 18-24 years old, compared to 102,366 voters aged 65 and up.

Candidates and Campaigns

Who are the candidates for the congressional district?

Congressional District candidates are individuals who are running to serve as the representative for the geographic area and its residents for the next two years. Campaigns are the formal organizations, established according to federal election laws and regulations, that serve as the vehicles for candidates to raise money, hire staff, and spend money to get out the vote.

Candidates and their campaign work to attract the attention of voters. We may see an ad on YouTube, see a sign on our neighbor’s yard, or maybe even have a campaign volunteer knock on our door (post-COVID-19, this is less likely).

Country Registrar of Voters Offices have the definitive information for candidates of congressional district races. For example, the County of San Diego ROV has a “Candidates and Campaigns” page that includes a Candidate List. In the 50th Congressional District, there are two candidates: Ammar Campa-Najjar and Darrell Issa. Mr. Campa-Najjar is a business owner/educator while Mr. Issa is a retired congressman.

The public core of any campaign is its website. Mr. Campa-Najjar’s campaign website features information about the candidate, events, issues, volunteer opportunities, news, endorsements, and merchandise. Mr. Issa’s campaign website has information about the candidate, endorsements, news, issues, and how to get involved.

Issues

What are the issues of the congressional district?

Congressional districts have unique geographies, demographics, and economies, and these are typically the roots from which issues blossom. For example, the 50th Congressional District includes the Sawtooth Mountains Wilderness area that is managed by the federal Bureau of Land Management. This geographic feature is a matter that may require the attention of the eventual congressmember and their staffs. Thus, knowing the uniqueness of a congressional district’s geography is useful.

Demographically, the Census Bureau maintains “My Congressional District” website. The demographics of a congressional district are useful to know because it provides a portrait of the people living in the district. This portrait serves as helpful information for an eventual congressmember and their staffs. Figure 2 shows an infographic of age, sex, race & Hispanic origin, education, and poverty for the 50th Congressional District.

Given these population characteristics, issues related to jobs, education, and poverty may be important to the voters in the district. Furthermore, the Census Bureau’s “My Congressional District” feature includes “Workers” data. Table 1 shows the estimated number of employees by occupation. Issues can derive from the candidates and their campaigns themselves. Table two shows a table comparing the issues listed by each campaign as of August 15, 2020.

Polling

What is polling for the congressional district?

Polling is the process of scientifically surveying registered voters in a specific area, like a congressional district, to ask them a set of questions about issues, candidates, and expected voting behavior. Polling is important because it gives you a sense of the “horse race” of congressional campaigns.

Polling is conducted by polling companies, news media, campaigns, political action committees (PACs), and interest groups, among others. The data for most polls are private, since polling data reveal questions and answers to those questions that are a part of campaign strategies.

However, some polling data is public. For example, KGTV-TV San Diego and the San Diego Union-Tribune partnered with SurveyUSA to conduct a poll on the 50th Congressional District. The poll was conducted from January 9 to January 12, 2020, during the primary election. Thus, this poll includes not just Mr. Ammar Campa-Najjar and Mr. Darrell Issa, but eight other candidates as well.

Just recently, new public polling data was released by the same partnership of KGTV-TV San Diego and the San Diego Union Tribune. This poll, conducted from September 4 to September 7, 2020, shows an unexpectedly close race between the two candidates.

Concluding Remarks

Analyzing congressional district elections, or any other state legislative or statewide election for that matter, can be broken down into five parts: geography, voter data, candidates, issues, and polling. For a student living in their community, analyzing congressional district elections may sound daunting, but the reality is that with the framework described above—with the running example of California’s 50th congressional district—one can critically examine a race.

Most of the time, we focus on who is running, and whether we like them or not. Sometimes we may get into a debate about an issue and where candidates stand. That is all well and good for our representative democracy. However, using the framework above, we can take a step back and hopefully see the bigger picture.


Josh Franco is a guest contributor for the RAISE the Vote Campaign. The views expressed in the posts and articles featured in the RAISE the Vote campaign are those of the authors and contributors alone and do not represent the views of APSA. 

Josh Franco is a full-time, tenure-track assistant professor of political science at Cuyamaca College, San Diego county, California. As a first-generation college graduate, introducing political science to the next generation of leaders and scholars is his mission. He earned his PhD and MA in political science and BA in public policy from the University of California, Merced. He also holds AA degrees in economics and political science from Cerritos College. His research interests include American politics and pedagogy. Additionally, he has five years of professional experience working in the California State Capitol and US Congress

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