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The upcoming congressional election will be important and interesting, from a number of perspectives. You will be responsible for taking a broad topic that is pertinent to the study of Congress and writing a 12-15 page paper about it in the context of the 2004 congressional election. Topics you might write about include new patterns of campaign finance, membership turnover, congressional redistricting, the performance of statistical models predicting the 2004 outcome, and the possible special Senate election in Massachusetts. In addition to writing the paper, you will give a brief (6 minute) presentation of your paper's findings to class.

Choosing the topic

You must run the topic by me for approval, so the sooner you get that taken care of the better. As I say in the overview, I want you to take a topic that we cover in class and write a paper that applies the outcome of the 2004 election to that topic. The most obvious set of papers concern elections themselves - patterns concerning candidates, voters, campaign finance, and redistricting. Less obvious, but still fun and instructive, are topics that focus on how the internal dynamics of the chamber will be affected by the results. This would include things like how turnover and term limits will affect committee and party leadership, the strength and cohesion of the parties, etc.

If I have not approved your topic by the date of the midterm, I doubt you (or I) will be happy with the paper you write.


I intend this to be a good, old fashioned "term paper." That means I expect you to dip into a combination of sources that range from congressional documents to CQ Weekly to books and journal articles. Each paper will be different in the details. There is an essay at the back of my book about doing congressional research. Consult it.

Writing style

I expect your paper to conform to three sets of style books. Most generally, on matters of usage and style, rely on Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. For general matters of what the paper should look like (margins, headings, etc.) use Kate Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. (Just for future reference, Turabian is the "college paper" version of the Chicago Manual of Style. If you intend to continue writing seriously, I'd suggest getting a copy and internalizing it.) Turabian also has good advice on usage. On citations, rely on The Style Manual for Political Science .The citation rules are reprinted at Citing Print Sources: The Style Manual for Political Science.

Academic integrity

It is important that the work in the paper be your own. But, it's also appropriate to ask for some help. So, here are the guidelines.

The biggest issue is always plagiarism. Plagiarism is the appropriation of someone else's ideas or words as your own. Within the academic world, this is the worst offence you can commit. At some universities, like the University of Virginia, one infraction leads to expulsion and banishment forever from that university. MIT doesn't do it this way, but this is my rule: If you plagiarize a paper, you fail the class.

When in doubt, err on the side of attribution. The two basic rules are these:

  • If you use someone else's language exactly, you must display it, or put it in quotes, and provide guidance about where precisely the reader can find it.
  • If you make a claim that is not common knowledge, you must provide a citation to it.

The MIT Writing and Communication Center Web site has links to a couple of very good Web sites that deal with how to avoid plagiarism. Another issue is receiving help from someone else. It is fine with me if you show a draft of your paper to a friend (or the Writing Center) and seek feedback concerning style and usage. It is also fine if you bounce ideas off a friend. If you do, make sure it is your words that go on the page. Just to be safe, you should thank anyone who gave you assistance in writing the paper, in the very first footnote or at the end of the paper, where the citations begin. Check out Avoiding Plagiarism.

First assignment

Come to the next class meeting prepared to give a 3 to 5 minute political introduction to your home congressional district and your current member of Congress.

The presentation should include information about the following items:

The salient political characteristics of the district

  • Geographic location
  • Location of large cities and economic regions
  • Ethnic or other demographic blocs that are politically relevant
  • Districting history

The salient political background of the incumbent

  • When was s/he first elected and what was her or his political background?
  • How electorally secure is the incumbent?
  • Where does the incumbent's primary political support come from?
  • Who is running against the incumbent in 2000?
  • What are the prospects for the incumbent's reelection in 2000?

[NB: If the incumbent is not running for reelection, adapt these characteristics to the candidates running to replace him or her.]

The political future of the district

  • What political, economic, or social trends might change the incumbent's chances in the future?
  • What is likely to happen with the redistricting that will occur next year?

The best source of information for this assignment can be found in the 2000 edition of the Almanac of American Politics or Politics in America.

A visual aid locating the district might be helpful, though we can't assume we'll have an overhead by then.