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Political Courage Test Trends Over Time, 1990–2022

Comprehensive voter education is quintessential to Vote Smart’s mission of providing unbiased fact driven information to all eligible voters. The Political Courage Test (PCT) is a signature aspect of putting this vision into practice. Since its inception, Vote Smart has tested candidates running for congressional, gubernatorial, state legislative, and presidential offices on their willingness to provide their electorate with clear and concise positions on the most salient issues of each cycle. Our research staff spends months formulating the Political Courage Test before sending it to be reviewed by our board of directors and over 200 advisors, who are political scientists, journalists, and politics experts across the country. This intensive review process ensures there is no political bias in the questions selected. The test typically asks candidates to provide firm stances on topics such as the economy, defense spending, national security, campaign finance regulation, gun rights, healthcare, and the environment, in addition to various social issues like abortion (Figure 1). Additionally, the PCT requires responses on the most pertinent issues of each cycle. For example, in the most recent 2022 election candidates were asked to answer "Do you support the U.S. providing increased offensive military aid to Ukraine?"

The Political Courage Test has evolved in step with the organization. Vote Smart used to deliver the PCT through the mail and phone but has transitioned to email in recent years as technology has advanced. Vote Smart began by testing candidates over the phone through a labor intensive process. In 1990, 133 candidates from 14 different states who were running in 70 different races were tested. Of the 133 initial candidates tested, 76.1% responded by completing the test. The transition to digital communication greatly expanded the questionnaire’s reach and reduced the amount of labor required per candidate, allowing Vote Smart to test all offices by 1992. It was initially named the National Political Awareness Test (NPAT), but the name was updated to reflect the bold nature of the questionnaire. The initial test was open ended (Figure 2), while more recent versions feature questions that are specific to the issues most germane to the interests of the voters themselves. The change in question formation reflects a shift to a more stringent commitment to openness in voter education. Over time, Vote Smart has demonstrated its commitment to filling a critical role in the democratic process by providing voters with the information they require to be a fully informed electorate.

2022 Congressional Political Courage Test

First page of Vote Smart's 2022 Congressional Political Courage Test
Figure 1

1990 Political Awareness Test

1990 Political Awareness Test results for candidates for United States Senate Iowa
Figure 2

Between 1996 and 2020, Vote Smart tested 139,745 state legislative candidates, 1,388 gubernatorial candidates, 21,363 congressional candidates, and 1,825 presidential candidates. In total, during this span, we have sent the Political Courage Test to 180,729 candidates for elected office across the country. The average response rate during this time was 21.37% for state legislative candidates, 39.58% for gubernatorial candidates, 29.51% for congressional candidates, and 39.29% for presidential candidates (Figure 3). Overall, Vote Smart has challenged 164,321 candidates for public office to show voters their political courage and has received responses from 27.41% of them. Some notable politicians who have completed the Political Courage Test in the past include Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), former Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, former Democratic Presidential Candidate Al Gore, and former Republican President George W. Bush during his 1998 campaign for Texas governor. Candidates at every level of government have shown their commitment to transparency through completion of this test, indicating that administering the PCT has helped to spread political awareness across partisan lines.

Graph of average Political Courage Test response rate by office 1996–2020
Figure 3

As the political landscape continues to grow more divisive, the trend in response rates to the Political Courage Test illustrates candidates’ lack of willingness to provide clear stances to their electorate regarding the most important issues facing the country. State legislative response rate has fallen from 35% in 1996 to 5% in 2020, while gubernatorial response rate has fallen from 75% to 5% for the same period (Figure 4). Similar trends emerge in congressional response rates with 61% of candidates tested responding in 1996 compared to 26% of candidates tested responding in 2020. However, presidential response rates have risen from 25% in 1996 to 31% in the most recent election. Part of this reflects an increase in the raw numbers of candidates running for office. Comparison of congressional response totals with the number of individuals running for office illustrates this upward shift. In 1996, 1,623 candidates ran for congress, compared to 2,694 in 2018 (Figure 5). This roughly 1,000 candidate increase can be seen across most U.S. states over the same period and reflects congruent trends across the offices tested by the PCT. This influx of candidates means that the decrease in the number of respondents (995 in 1996 compared to 781 in 2018 for congressional candidates) is more notable when comparing percentages.

Graph of trends in Political Courage Test response rates by office
Figure 4
Graph of Political Courage Test responses compared to total number of candidates running for Congress
Figure 5

We continued to see this decline in candidate response rate in the 2022 midterm elections. Out of 18,823 candidates, the Federal and State PCTs garnered a response rate for congressional races of 8.8%, a gubernatorial response rate of 6%, and a state legislative response rate of 1.2%. Going into the 2024 presidential elections, Vote Smart will be working on new strategies to increase the response rate among candidates, and we encourage all voters to request candidates for office in their states and districts to take the Political Courage Test so we can all see where our elected officials stand on the issues most important to us.

As we reflect over the past 30 years, Vote Smart has remained committed to ensuring candidates and representatives for elected office are held to the highest standard. Our staff and dedicated supporters work tirelessly to increase candidate transparency in order to create well informed voters. As races all over the nation become increasingly dominated by longtime incumbents, the PCT has never been more important. With the rampant misinformation surrounding politics growing each year, both Vote Smart and the Political Courage Test have remained steadfast in their dedication towards cultivating a well informed electorate, even if the nature of politics shifts around it.

¹ DeSilver, Drew. 2022. “The polarization in today's Congress has roots that go back decades.” Pew Research Center.

² “Reelection Rates over the Years.” OpenSecrets. Accessed January 6, 2023.

This research was compiled by Caleb Courtney and Seth Kallestad.

Caleb Courtney (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since April 2022 and has since researched candidate issue positions and biographies. Prior to his start at the organization, Caleb studied political science and history at the University of Iowa. In his free time, he enjoys traveling and has been to over 20 states.

Seth Kallestad (he/him/his) has been at Vote Smart since May 2022 and collects biographical information for candidates running for office. Prior to working at the organization, Seth studied political science and history at Iowa State University. In his free time, he reads science fiction and spends time with his dogs.

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