Parties Matter in the Polarization Story

September 30, 2014 Leave a comment

Philip Bump wrote yesterday in the Washington Post’s blog, The Fix, about the relationship between a Representative’s voting behavior and the ideology of the district she represents. To do so, he compares a member’s liberalism (as measured by the National Journal’s annual ranking) with that of the member’s district (as measured by how much more less than average the district supported Romney in the 2012 presidential election–what we political scientists call the normalized presidential vote).

The big take away for Bump is that there seems to be a pretty strong relationship, shown in the graph below. The Pearson’s R for the two measures, in case you were wondering (and you know you were wondering), is 0.834 (p<0.001). Indeed, Bump notes, the districts that everyone expects to flip parties this election are on the wrong side of the y-axis (member voting) given their position on the x-axis (district ideology). The member is either too conservative (e.g., Miller in CA-31) or, more often this election cycle, too liberal (e.g., Matheson in UT-4) for the district.

Source: Philip Bump, The Washington Post, Sept. 29, 2014.

The graph is all well and good for Bump’s purposes, but I think it shows something much more interesting. In order to see what I want to talk about, let’s look only at those districts within +/- 5 points of the average district vote for president–which are shown in the following graph. (Note: I’ve flipped the axes from what Bump had. The liberal-conservative voting index is now on the y-axis and the district vote is now on the x-axis.)

MembersDistricts

There is no overlap between the two parties here. The most liberal Republican is still more conservative than the most conservative Democrat. Moreover, members representing similar districts (as measured by presidential voting) behave very differently depending on their party affiliation. McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal (2009; gated) call this effect intra-district divergence. They argue that most of the polarization that we see in Congress today, in fact, is not a function of how districts are drawn but rather how members represent those districts once they are sworn into office. They write, “[T]he secular increase in polarization is not primarily a phenomenon of how voters are sorted into districts. It is mainly the consequence of the different ways Democrats and Republicans … represent the same districts” (678).

This election cycle will continue a long run trend of district sorting as Bump notes, but there is more to the polarization story than electoral sorting. District composition is important, but the various forces pulling members apart–especially the political parties–are more important.

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McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. 2009. “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” American Journal of Political Science 53:666-80.

Six California’s No More

September 12, 2014 Leave a comment

Well, darn. The plan to split California into six separate states died before it even hit the ballot. Not that there was ever any chance of this proposal ever becoming a reality, but we don’t even get to debate its merits (or lack thereof) for the next two years.

The proposed six states.

A note to all you would be initiative sponsors out there: Yes, people will sign a lot of what you shove in their faces outside the grocery store or the mall. They won’t put much thought into whether they are signing the right form, whether they can legally sign it, or whether they are signing their own name or someone else’s name, though. Draper’s organization submitted 1,150,000 signatures hoping to get at least the needed 807,615 valid signatures. They weren’t able to get there, falling about 50,000 short.

Count me as disappointed.

California’s Gubernatorial Debate

September 5, 2014 1 comment

If a debate happens and nobody pays any attention, does it really happen?

A full two months before the November election, California’s incumbent governor, Jerry Brown, and his challenger, Neel Kashkari, squared off for their one and only debate. It was a testy affair, and Kashkari desperately tried to create some heat for his campaign.

Yeah. About that.

Here are some screen grabs from some of California’s major newspapers. See if you can spot the theme:

Let’s start with the best home-page coverage, the San Jose Mercury News:

MercuryNews

So far, so good. Now something a little less prominent but still heavily featured, the Sacramento Bee:

Bee

Okay. Still pretty good. There’s a picture there, and it seems to be the main article. Now, SFGate (the free version of the San Francisco Chronicle):

Chronicle

Uh, oh. According the Chronicle editors, you the reader are likely to care more about the price of a 49ers game, real estate in Berkeley, or how to successfully quit your job than you are the debate. Well, San Francisco is a hot bed of liberalism. Maybe it’s an aberration.

Here’s two conservative papers, though, the Orange County Register and the Riverside Press Enterprise.

Register

There’s no mention of the debate at all here. None at all.

PressEnterprise

A monster-sized boulder is apparently more important than the gubernatorial debate to the readers in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Finally, from the Los Angeles Times:

LATimes

Yeah. No debate here either. (Although maybe the story about the grocery bags is a stealth attempt to get people to read about the debate. Brown did say during the debate that he would probably sign the bill banning plastic grocery bags in California.)

So, summing up. There was a debate last night between the two people running for governor in California. It’s the only debate that will happen between these two people. Only half of the state’s major newspapers think it was worth your attention. (Or, more accurately, think you care enough about it to feature it on their home-page.)

Admittedly, I haven’t seen the print editions of these newspapers. Maybe the debate is above the fold there. Most people don’t get their news from print editions any more, though.

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P.S. If you are wondering where all the adds are (the LA Times site has a lot of white space, for example), they aren’t being displayed because I use Ad Block Plus on my Chrome browser.

Don’t Blame Prop. 14 for Low Turnout

 

Admittedly I am picking a fight without reading the whole article (because it is behind a pay wall), but in today’s Ventura Star Timm Herdt lays out an argument that Prop. 14’s top-two system of elections is partly to blame for the incredibly low turnout (gated) that we saw in California on Tuesday. He calls the system a failure. While I am not a big fan of the top-two system as it has been implemented in California, I don’t think that you can blame it for just 18% of California’s registrants showing up to vote (or, again, more likely mailing their ballots in).

We are not the only state that uses the top-two system. Washington does as well. In fact, our system is explicitly modeled on Washington’s system. The following graph shows the percent of registrants voting in Washington’s elections from 1952 to 2012 (their first 2014 election will be in August). During the period up to 2002 (the first vertical line), Washington used the blanket primary. After the Supreme Court held the blanket primary unconstitutional, it switched to an open primary system (what they called “pick a primary”) for the 2004 and 2006 elections. In 2008 (the second vertical line), Washington adopted the top-two system, which it has used ever since.

Washington State Turnout

Note that turnout hasn’t cratered in Washington as it has in California. Indeed, turnout in the last three elections looks an awful lot like turnout in the prior elections. Admittedly, these numbers are for the November elections. If we look at the last five primaries (2004-2012), though, we see the same pattern. The turnout numbers are 45.1% (2004), 38.8% (2006), 42.6% (2008), 41.0% (2010), and 38.5% (2012). Again, there is no major drop-off in voter turnout once the top-two system was adopted in Washington.

So why the low turnout if it’s not the top-two system? There are lots of possibilities. Off the top of my head I would offer: The marginalization of the Republican Party in California politics, the fact that we have a popular governor running for re-election, the fact that there were no interesting ballot initiatives to vote on, the fact that there are no major controversies animating California politics right now, and the fact that more people think the state is headed in the right direction. As I said before, it was a boring, low-salience election. There was very little to get people excited about voting. Those are the places where I would look to explain low turnout, not the top-two system.

 

Thoughts on the June 3 Election

Californians (at least a very small number of us) went to the polls yesterday (well, most of us mailed back our ballots and didn’t actually go to the polls). Here are some thoughts, in no particular order of importance:

  • Turnout was really, really, really low–even for a boring election like this one. Right now it looks like turnout among registered voters (who we think are likely to vote because they bothered to register) will be a mere 18.5%. In 2010 and 2006, registered turnout was 33%. This is voter participation looks like in an election where the most compelling statewide race is the Secretary of State contest and there are no big, sexy ballot initiatives to draw people’s attention.
  • At least locally, this election looks to be as close to an all-mail election as we’ve seen in a long time. Last week, over 42,000 mail ballots had been returned to the Registrar’s office. As of this morning, the Registrar reports that just over 50,000 people voted in San Joaquin County. Even assuming that no more mail ballots were submitted (problematic), that means that about 85% of the ballots cast were cast through the mail.
  • Unless I have missed something, there will be no minor party candidates on this fall’s ballot. There will be a handful of No Party Preference candidates, but no minor party candidates were among the top two vote getters in any partisan contest.
  • In 2012, the Democrats blew a great opportunity to pick up the 31st congressional district. The district tilts slightly Democratic in its presidential/gubernatorial voting and in its voter registration, but no Democrat appeared on the November ballot in 2012 because the Democrats could not coordinate and settle on a single candidate. They almost did it again this year. Pete Aguilar, the top vote getter among the four (!) Democrats in the district, received just 390 more votes than the second-place Republican, Lesli Gooch. Aguilar should win against Paul Chabot in November, though.
  • Locally, the state and national contests were largely cake-walks for the incumbents. Jerry McNerney (D, CA-9) received more than 50% of the vote. Jeff Denham (R, CA-10) got more than 57% of the vote. The Assembly and State Senate members all coasted as well (though not all with as large a vote margin).
  • Also, remember, no matter what they say in the media, yesterday’s election was not a primary.

Prop. 14’s Electoral System

A quick reminder: Despite what you hear in the media and despite what it says on your ballot, the California June election is not a primary election.

What is a primary election? I usually discourage students from using dictionary definitions in their papers, but the exercise is useful here. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines a primary election as an “intra‐party election enabling voters to participate in the selection of candidates.” Indeed, as Alan Ware documents in his book, The American Direct Primary, primary elections were adopted in the United States precisely so that political parties could regain control over their nominees. The defining feature of a primary election is that rank-and-file party members get to participate in the selection of their party’s nominees for office.

Did you catch that? In a primary election, party members select party nominees for office. Because of Prop. 14, that’s not what will happen in the June election.

In the June election, voters from every political party will go the polls (or, more likely, fill out their ballots at home and then mail them back) and cast their vote for their preferred candidate. While the vast majority of people will cast a ballot for someone from their own political party, there is no requirement to do so. If you are a Republican and you want to vote for a Democrat, you get to do so. If you are a Democrat and you want to vote for a Republican, you can. (I’d say something about voting for a minor party candidate, but there are so few of them that most of us won’t get that option.) The two candidates who receive the most votes will then face each other in the November election. There is no requirement that the candidates be from different parties. If two Republicans receive more votes than the top Democrat, then the two candidates on the November ballot will both be Republicans. If two Democrats receive the most votes, then there will be no Republicans on the November ballot.

So if it’s not a primary election (despite almost everyone claiming that it is), what is the June election? It’s the first stage of a majority-runoff system of elections. As I wrote in my article:

Although there is some debate about the exact classification of California’s new electoral system, most scholars would identify the Proposition 14 system as a variant of majoritarian runoff elections. Riker (1983, 754), for example, defines such a system as one with “three or more candidates with two ballots, in which at the first ballot the winners are the two candidates with the largest and second largest number of votes, and, at the second ballot between exactly these two, the winner is the candidate with a simple majority.” Lijphart (1995, 18) refers to both the Louisiana and Georgia systems [which share characteristics with California's system] as majority runoff systems (see also Norris 1997; Engstrom and Engstrom 2008). Cox (1997) labels these electoral systems “single-member dual-ballot” systems.

So if you are from California, as you sit around and discuss who you will vote for in June don’t use the word “primary.” It doesn’t apply to the election you will be voting in.

Updating Prop. 14 and the Death of Minor Parties

Last year I wrote a number of posts about the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. These musings ultimately led to an article, which was published in the California Journal of Politics and Policy, about the minor parties’ experience post-Prop. 14  (gated versionrevised, ungated version). Since the June election is now just weeks away, I thought I would update some of the tables and figures with data from this election cycle.

Overall, 2014 is a continuation of the pattern observed in 2012–there are fewer minor party candidates contesting fewer districts this election cycle compared to prior cycles. The 2012 cycle saw a historically low number of minor party candidates–just 17 (compared with 77 in 2010). In 2014, there are only 14 minor party candidates contesting 12 districts. Table 1 shows the number of minor party candidates and the number of districts contested for each of the three types of legislative districts in California. In general, 2014 looks an awful lot like 2012.

2014 Update Table

In my article, I argue that the decline in minor party candidates principally comes from three factors (in order of increasing importance):

  1. Candidates, knowing they were likely not be one of the top two vote getters and therefore would not make the November election, chose not to run.
  2. The Legislature significantly increased the costs of filing for office for minor party candidates after Prop. 14, changing what had been an essentially costless act into a very costly one. As a result, fewer minor party candidates chose to file for office.
  3. Most importantly, party leaders–especially in the Libertarian Party–no longer recruited candidates as they once did in the face of (1) and (2).

I really want to emphasize the importance of #3 in understanding the impact of Prop. 14 on California’s minor parties. Most of the decline between 2010 and 2012, as shown below, was located in the Libertarian Party. (There was a little controversy over the following chart. See here then here.)

2014 UpdateUnlike the other minor parties (with the exception of the Natural Law Party when it existed) the Libertarian Party has historically relied on a centralized candidate recruitment effort. Moreover, as shown below, until the last two election cycles its number of candidates has largely tracked its statewide party registration numbers. In 2012, though, the person responsible for recruiting Libertarian candidates chose not to repeat the effort. In an email exchange with me, the person specifically identified #1 and #2 as reasons for no longer recruiting candidates. (While I haven’t talked with the person this year, I would be very surprised if there was a recruitment effort in 2014.) As a consequence, while the Libertarian Party’s registration numbers have been ticking upward in the state–reaching a modern high in 2014–the number of Libertarian candidates filing for office has collapsed. Only five candidates filed for office this year. The Libertarian Party now looks like the other minor parties in California.

LibUpdate

It wouldn’t be a post about Prop. 14 and minor parties if I didn’t speculate about what these numbers mean for California’s minor parties, so here goes:

There are two primary ways in which California’s minor parties maintain the ballot qualification status. First, one of their candidates receives at least 2 percent of the November vote for a statewide office (e.g., Governor, Lt. Governor, Insurance Commissioner, and Attorney General). Historically, this has been the principal way in which parties have maintained access to the ballot. Given that none of the parties’ candidates will make it to the November election for these offices, none of the parties will maintain their ballot status this way this cycle.

The second way to maintain ballot status is by having 1 percent of the total gubernatorial vote registered as party members. The minor parties are really lucky that the governor’s race is so very boring this year. Turnout is likely to be low, which will make it easier for the parties to stay on the ballot. The magic number after the 2010 contest (which had relatively high turnout–44%!–because of the Brown-Whitman contest) was 103,004 registrants. Given current registration numbers and an assumed turnout rate closer to 2006, the American Independent, Green, and Libertarian parties should be able to maintain their ballot status. The Americans Elect (a failed “third way” party organized for the 2012 presidential election) and the Peace & Freedom parties, however, will likely lose their ballot status.

(The parties can also gather petition signatures equal to 10 percent of the gubernatorial vote in order to stay on the ballot. Given the expense of doing so, though, I don’t see either party trying this route.)

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