One of the central claims made by proponents of the top two system of election is that by opening up the electorate–forcing candidates to compete for the full spectrum of voters rather than just those in their party–we would get more moderate legislators and less polarization in Sacramento. Here’s some of the argument from the 2010 Primary Election Voter Guide:
Our economy is in crisis. …
Our state government is broken.
But the politicians would rather stick to their rigid partisan positions and appease the special interests than work together to solve California’s problems.
In order to change government we need to change the kind of people we send to the Capitol to represent us.
IT’S TIME TO END THE BICKERING AND GRIDLOCK AND FIX THE SYSTEM
The politicians won’t do it, but Proposition 14 will. …
“The best part of the open primary is that it would lessen the influence of the major parties, which are now under control of the special interests.” (Fresno Bee, 2/22/09.)
PARTISANSHIP IS RUNNING OUR STATE INTO THE GROUND
Non-partisan measures like Proposition 14 will push our elected officials to begin working together for the common good. …
Vote Yes on 14—for elected representatives who are LESS PARTISAN and MORE PRACTICAL.
What’s not to like there? The promise is that we’ll get less partisan representatives who can work together for the benefit of the state as a whole rather than the parties and interests that worked to get them elected.
So how’s that working out? It’s actually pretty hard to say. Things seem to be running smoother in Sacramento, but is that because (a) we have unified Democratic control of the state government, (b) Democrats control almost 2/3 of the state legislature, (c) the economy has been improving, (d) changes made to legislative districts by the Citizen’s Redistricting Commission, (e) reforms to the budgeting process enacted by Prop. 25, (f) changes to term limits made by Prop. 28, (g) something else, or (h) all of the above? Honestly, given so many moving pieces, it’s hard to say for sure what has led to the renaissance (such as it is) in California government.
But, new data is becoming available that can help us assess parts of the claims made by top two supporters. For example, has the top two system of elections led to less polarization in the legislature? Are legislators more likely to work together in a non-partisan fashion now that we have the top two system?
To help answer this question I will turn to the Shor-McCarty NPAT scores. These scores map legislators in each of the states on a common liberal-conservative spectrum. In July, Shor and McCarty released an update that includes data for 2013 so that we can see how the legislature is behaving in the year after our first top two election. The following graph plots the distance between the median Republican and the median Democrat in both chambers of the state legislature between 1993 and 2013. Higher scores mean greater distance between the two party medians and therefore more polarization.
So, um, yeah … not so much with the “less partisan” and “more practical” legislators. The trend in greater polarization that began in 1995 seems to have continued unabated in 2013. Both the California Assembly and the State Senate were more polarized in 2013 than they were at any other time given this data. A system that was supposed to break the party-dominated tone of life in Sacramento hasn’t done so. Indeed, the polarization trend has held through three different primary (closed, blanket, and semi-closed) systems in addition to the top two system.
But wait, you are saying, this is the first year we have used the top two system. Give it some time, you say. Maybe things will change in a couple years. Possibly. Possibly.
As it happens, California isn’t the first state to adopt the top two system. Immediately before we adopted it, Washington adopted the top two system. The following graph presents the same data for Washington. What has happened to polarization there? Nothing of note. Well, we can say one thing of note: Again, contrary to the promises of the pro-top two reformers, polarization didn’t go down after Washington adopted the top two system.
So there’s this new organization called CrowdPAC that aims to offer “The best objective data on US political candidates.” Using a somewhat undefined methodology (although there is more technical information available here), built on the work of Stanford Political Scientist and co-founder Dr. Adam Bonica, it rates each candidate in all of the various congressional contests on a 10L to 10C scale, with 10L being the most liberal and 10C being the most conservative. (There are a handful of people they rate 10L+ or 10C+, which means they are off the scale liberal or off the scale conservative.) Dr. Bonica’s work recently received some coverage over at the Monkey Cage, most notably because it challenges the dominant narrative that modern partisan polarization is being driven by Republicans rather than Democrats.
I am particularly happy to see this kind of work, especially because it is about candidates and not elected officials. (Much of my current research interest revolves around Proposition 14 and its effects, which are supposed to be about candidate behavior.) Boris Shor has another set of data on candidate positions, but he hasn’t released an update for 2014 yet.
I’m a little dubious of this data, however, and it is the score that they give Jerry McNerney (CA-9), the local representative here in the Central Valley, that spurred my concern. In 2012, according to Shor’s data, McNerney was more conservative than the average Democrat. I made the following graph last election cycle to demonstrate the ideological positions of McNerney and his 2012 Republican challenger, Ricky Gill. McNerney scored relatively close to 0, which is politically moderate.
Shor’s measure tracks well with other measures of ideology as revealed through voting in Congress. The most commonly used measure of ideology in congressional studies is Poole and Rosenthal’s NOMINATE scores. (There are others, but this is the one that everyone talks about.) NOMINATE scores range from -1 (the most liberal member of Congress) to +1 (the most conservative member of Congress). Here too, McNerney comes out fairly moderate (-0.225). All of this should not be surprising for a candidate who has made veterans’ issues and clean energy his primary policy talking points.
So how does McNerney score in the CrowdPAC data? He gets a 9.4L, which is more liberal than Nancy Pelosi (6.8L), Barbara Lee (8.5L), and Maxine Waters (7.1L)–all of whom have strong reputations as liberal stalwarts in both Democratic and Republican circles. (Their respective NOMINATE scores are -0.398, -0.694, and -0.594.) Indeed, as the following graph shows, McNerney’s score puts him near the liberal edge of all Democratic candidates running in California. (Note: I’ve reversed the sign for liberal rankings so that a 10L is a -10 in the following graphs.)
So something seems a bit off here.
One of the concepts we talk about in research methods is measurement validity–the degree to which a measure accurately captures the concept that you are trying to measure. One way to assess measurement validity is to compare its values with other, more well known measures of the same concept. (We call this convergent validity and use it to assess a measure’s content validity. This isn’t the whole of how we should test for content validity, but it is instructive as a start.) So let’s do that.
The following graph compares NOMINATE scores from the 112th Congress with the CrowdPAC measure for California’s candidates. While the two measures appropriately lump Republicans (upper right) and Democrats (lower left) together, there actually isn’t that strong of a correlation between the two measures within each party. Perhaps this disparity isn’t that surprising given that Dr. Bonica’s work disagrees with Poole and Roenthal’s on some important points, but it does raise concerns for me.
An alternative measure that I have been playing with recently is the National Journal’s conservative ranking. Similar to Poole and Rosenthal, National Journal examines member’s voting records and rates them on a liberal-conservative index. In this index, 0 is the most liberal a member can be and 100 is the most conservative. The rankings shown in the graph below are for current members of Congress. Again, while the groupings are roughly correct, within each party there isn’t much connection between the two scores. In one case, Eric Swalwell (CA-15), CrowdPAC offers a dramatically different rating than National Journal. (Removing Swalwell actually lowers the correlation coefficient for the Democrats to 0.015.) McNerney by National Journal’s measure is on the moderate side of the California Democratic delegation with a score of 38.5.
For the record, the correlation coefficient for the National Journal rating and NOMINATE for Democrats is 0.645 and for Republicans is 0.698. Unlike all of the above coefficients, these last two are statistically significant at conventional levels (i.e., α = 0.05).
All of this is to say that I am somewhat torn about this new measure. On the one hand, it is fantastic to get any measure of candidate ideology. It allows us to assess questions of whether competitive districts lead to more moderate candidates. The answer according to this data appears to be: No, competitive districts do not lead to more moderate candidates, even controlling for the presence of an incumbent. The following graph shows the CrowdPAC score plotted against the normalized presidential vote (NPV; i.e., how much more or less a district supported Obama in 2012 compared to the average district nationwide). If the competitiveness of a district was related to the ideology of the candidates running in it, we ought to see the dots getting closer to each other as the NPV gets closer to zero. (The lines are LOWESS regression lines for each party’s members.) They don’t.
On the other hand, I have serious doubts about the validity of the measure. So my hope is that in future iterations it will get better.
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.
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.)
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.
McCarty, Nolan, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. 2009. “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” American Journal of Political Science 53:666-80.
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.
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.
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.
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 version; revised, 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.
In my article, I argue that the decline in minor party candidates principally comes from three factors (in order of increasing importance):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
Unlike 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.
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.)
My colleague, Prof. Klunk, wrote what has become one of the more popular posts on this site–an investigation of whether or not there are two presidencies. His post is about Aaron Wildavsky’s version of the two presidencies theory, the idea that there is a “foreign policy” presidency and a “domestic policy” presidency.
In this post, I want to explore a different two presidencies theory–advanced by Jeffrey Tulis–and use it as an excuse to pontificate about last night’s State of the Union Address. (I apologize in advance to Tulis. I probably will do his argument some disservice here.)
In the Rhetorical Presidency, Tulis argues that there are two constitutional presidencies–an uppercase “Constitutional” presidency and a lowercase “constitutional” presidency. (An abbreviated version of the argument can be found in Michael Nelson’s The Presidency and the Political System.) The “Constitutional” presidency refers to the presidency as it was conceived by the men who wrote the Constitution. This presidency is a limited presidency in which the president draws his authority from the Constitution and does not lead public opinion. Indeed, the Founders designed the presidency in order to limit the potential influence of a given president on the political system. The office exists within a separation of powers system, with the the three branches pursuing different objectives and performing different functions. The president’s function is to administer the laws that Congress passes. This presidency is a very limited presidency from a contemporary perspective. In the Richard Neustadt’s phrasing, the president is “an invaluable clerk,” someone whose actions are needed for the federal government to run effectively but who–by virtue of the constitutional limitations on his power–yields little independent influence over its direction.
The “constitutional” presidency, in contrast, is one in which the president draws his authority from his ability to lead public opinion in addition to the authority granted to the president by the Constitution. This vision of presidency demands that the president take an active role in determining the government’s direction. It is a rhetorical presidency–one in which the president must take the pulse of public opinion, turn that vague opinion into concrete policy proposals, and then actively work to convince the public (and thereby Congress) to support it. The lowercase “constitutional” presidency requires the president to be more than a clerk; it requires the president to be a leader.
Tulis argues that the two constitutional presidencies ultimately conflict with each other. The “constitutional” presidency demands an activist president that seeks to lead the public–and thereby the government–with bold policy proposals. The “Constitutional” emphasizes the institutional limits on the president’s ability to do so.
So what does this have to do with the last night’s State of the Union? I think President Obama’s speech last night was a perfect example of the tension that Tulis talks about.
On the one hand, there are a lot of things that President Obama would like to do. Using the example that a lot of people are talking about today, President Obama would like to raise the minimum wage. There’s actually a fair amount of public support for doing so. According to a November 2013 Gallup Poll, 76% of respondents said they would support raising the minimum wage to $9 per hour (the proposal from last year’s State of the Union). People are also still worried about their financial situation and the direction the economy is going. So here’s a case where President Obama can potentially be a leader by taking a proposal that has popular support, turning it into a concrete policy proposal, and then advocating for its passage.
But given current levels of partisan disagreement in Congress there’s no chance that Congress will actually raise the minimum wage. The House Republicans, for strategical political reasons and because of sincere policy beliefs, are not at all interested in raising the minimum wage. President Obama knows that. Everyone in Congress knows that. The talking heads on cable news know that (if they are being honest). Really, any reasonable political observer knows that the president’s proposal is basically dead in the water.
The end result is that because we (the public) expect the president to be a leader, President Obama has to get up in front of the nation and give a speech full of bold policy proposals that cannot be enacted because the Republicans control the House and they are not interested in passing his proposals. He has to create the appearance of being influential in a system where he actually has only a limited amount of influence.
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