Archive for the ‘Applying Political Science’ Category

Responding to Skelton Again

George Skelton writes:

California Legislature is looking more moderate due to voting reforms

… [V]oters adopted the “top two” open primary. Starting in 2012, candidates didn’t seek party nominations. They sought to finish in the top two, regardless of party, and qualify for the November election. That meant they needed to attract voters outside their own party bases.

In theory, this would result in the election of more moderates and fewer party extremists. That also is happening.

My response:


Yeah, no. Sorry, George, wrong again. California has been and continues to be one of the most polarized legislatures in the country. If anything, despite the claims to the contrary, we have become even more polarized since the adoption of the top two system (which, by the way, is not a primary).

[h/t Rick Hasen]


Spot the Missing Voters

Although some of the (provisional) ballots are still being counted, it appears that incumbent Democrat Jerry McNerney has coasted to reelection this year against his Republican challenger Tony Amador in our local congressional district. Without even debating Amador (there’s some question about why that happened) and essentially running as low key a campaign as possible (though not nearly as low key as Gov. Brown’s), McNerney will be going back to Washington, DC, in 2015 for at least another two years.

If all you look at is the top line number, though, this year’s election seems a lot closer than 2012’s. This year, McNerney won with 51.5% of the vote. In 2012, against Ricky Gill, McNerney won with 55.6% of the vote.

Does this mean that Amador, despite raising just $62,000 compared to Gill’s $3,000,000, was a better candidate than Gill? I don’t think that’s the conclusion to be drawn here. Instead, I think the larger story is the disappearance of a large number of (Democratic) voters, especially in San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties.

The following graph shows the number of votes received by each candidate by county. (The numbers will go up ever so slightly for both Amador and McNerney this cycle as the provisional and late arriving mail ballots are processed, but the overall differences won’t change significantly.)


In every county, Gill out-polled Amador. In every county, McNerney’s 2012 campaign out-polled his 2014 campaign. McNerney’s losses in 2014, however, were ever so larger than Amador’s, thus the closer contest. Overall, McNerney’s vote total fell by 66% in 2014 compared to 2012. Amador’s vote total in 2014 was 60% lower than Gill’s was in 2012.

Does this mean that a better candidate could have defeated McNerney this cycle? Given the strong showing of Republicans nationally I’ll admit that it’s a possibility, but I don’t think it would have been very likely. I think the 2012 results still show how hard it will be for a Republican to win in this district. Gill had the disadvantage of running as someone who had never held elected office (just like Amador) and in a presidential election year when the Democrats did well. (Amador, having run for office several times, was perhaps more familiar to Republican voters.) Gill, however, was able to raise and spend $3 million, with outside groups kicking in another $3 million on his behalf. And he still lost by over 11 points.

Top Two and Polarization

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.


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.)


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.


CrowdPAC, Candidate Ideology, and Measurement Validity

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.

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.)


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.

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.


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.


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