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University of Iowa News Release


May 2, 2007

UI Economics Researcher: Term Limits Could Invigorate Senate Elections

A University of Iowa economics researcher believes there is evidence that better qualified candidates would run for the U.S. Senate if term limits were in place.

Matthew Mitchell, associate professor of economics in the Tippie College of Business and a Wright Faculty Fellow, studies the power of incumbency in political elections, with his research focused on finding out why incumbents are returned to office so frequently. Analysts cite many reasons for the power of incumbency, including the high name recognition they enjoy, the choice committee assignments they receive in the Senate, and access to large amounts of re-election money.

But Mitchell's research has found that in some ways, the power of incumbency is built into many senators even before they're elected. In a soon-to-be-published paper, Mitchell and two co-authors write that when voters elect a candidate to the Senate, they're voting for the best individual, whether that person is an incumbent or not.

"The candidates who run for the Senate are quality candidates to win the first time, and the voters see the person as a good, quality person, and so that person keeps winning," Mitchell said. "As a result, other quality candidates may be reluctant to challenge the incumbent not so much because he's the incumbent but because he's a quality candidate who's demonstrated an ability to win."

Mitchell's paper, "Electoral Design and Voter Welfare from the U.S. Senate: Evidence from a Dynamic Selection Model," will appear in a forthcoming issue of Review of Economic Dynamics. It was written with co-authors Gautam Gowrisankaran of the University of Arizona and Andrea Moro of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Mitchell points out that the power of incumbency is diluted in the U.S. Senate when compared to the House of Representatives or many other elected bodies. Since 1914, when the Senate became a popularly elected body, incumbents have lost to a challenger at the ballot box in about 25 percent of Senate elections. In the House of Representatives, on the other hand, challengers have successfully unseated an incumbent in only about 4 percent of elections.

Nevertheless, while the power of incumbency is diluted, it's still potent enough to deter many possible Senate candidates. Mitchell said a term limits law could make for more vigorous elections by creating more open seats more often, encouraging more and stronger candidates to run without fear of running against an incumbent. Voters would then have a stronger field of candidates from which to choose. This is especially noticeable in open seat elections, he said, when more quality candidates run because they have no fear of having to battle against the power of incumbency to win.

"Voters might be happier with their choices of candidates if we had more open seat elections, and term limits help us create those open seats," Mitchell said.

Mitchell acknowledges that term limits would force some talented veteran senators from office, and that it would deprive the voters the opportunity to re-elect a senator they like. On balance, though, he said term limits may have more advantages than disadvantages.

"Our research suggests that open seat elections attract such good, quality candidates that the benefit might outweigh the cost of losing a long-term incumbent," he said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,