Civics: Can the Party in Power Systematically Win a Majority in Close Legislative Elections? Evidence from U.S. State Assemblies

Dahyeon Jeong & Ajay Shenoy:

We study whether ruling parties can systematically win a slender majority of seats in close legislative elections, a phenomenon called “precise control.” We test for discontinuities in two outcomes that, in the absence of precise control, should be smooth at the 50% cutoff: the probability density of the share of seats won, and the identity of the party that previously held a majority. We find robust evidence of precise control, but only in high-stakes state elections that determine which party controls Congressional redistricting. Its absence in other elections suggests precise control is a strategic option used at the ruling party’s discretion. It shifts its strategy in high-stakes elections from seat maximization to majority-seeking, winning fewer seats but raising the chance it retains its majority. These tactics are disproportionately effective for the party defending a majority. It is 4 times more likely to win than to lose a close election.