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Gerrymandering and the Shutdown

Gerrymandering is a popular topic right now. Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal have an important reminder to everyone who wants to blame the current shutdown/debt ceiling on electorally insulated members of Congress: gerrymandering isn’t the cause of the problem.

They write:

What if we told you that the gerrymandering of congressional districts has nothing to do with political polarization in Washington? Gerrymandering didn’t have anything to do with the shutdown, or the battles over the debt ceiling, or Obamacare. In fact, the accepted view that politically based redistricting led to our state of intransigence isn’t just incorrect; it’s silly.

The real reason for our increasingly divided political system is much simpler: The right wing of the Republican Party has embraced a fundamentalist version of free-market capitalism andsucceeded in winning elections. (The Democrats have moved to the left, but less so.)

The Republican shift is the result of several factors. The realignment of Southern white voters into the Republican Party, the branch of conservative activism created by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign and the party’s increasingly firm stance on issues such as income inequality and immigration, can all be important to Republicans’ rightward shift.

The “blame it on the gerrymanders” argument mistakenly assumes that because redistricting created more comfortable seats for each party, polarization became inevitable. Our research, however, casts serious doubt on that idea.

Did you hear that: There is no necessary connection between gerrymandering, the creation of safe seats, and polarization.

Still more good stuff:

The most important element affecting polarization in the House of Representatives is the divergent approaches that Democrats and Republicans take to representing districts that are otherwise similar in terms of demographics and presidential voting. Even in moderate districts, Democratic representatives are still very liberal and Republican representatives are very conservative. This reflects a widening ideological gap, not different lines on a map.

If could magically switch the party of the person representing a district, you would observe dramatically different behavior (voting and otherwise) in Congress. It’s not that Congress is polarized because the districts are polarized. The parties have fundamentally different views of governing and seek to act on those views when in Congress. They do so, in some cases, in spite of the district.

One last bit:

There is another distinction. Many districts are safe for one party or the other because of how Americans have sorted themselves geographically — choosing to live closer to people who are politically or culturally like-minded. In Florida, for example, Palm Beach County will be reliably Democratic and the Panhandle will consistently vote for Republicans. These geographic shifts mean that state legislatures, which approve congressional district lines, can tweak but not fundamentally alter the ideological makeup of Congress.

Congress also has a handful of representatives from one-district states such as Vermont and Wyoming that can’t be subject to gerrymandering. Yet they are just as partisan as their colleagues from gerrymandered districts in other states.

See also Seth Masket’s recent post on the subject. Or my earlier post.

What Do Pacific Political Science Students Do?

April 19, 2013 Leave a comment

University of the Pacific junior Kyle Sasai, center, has August School eighth-graders write down his email address Wednesday during a visit to the east Stockton school. Sasai founded the HopeStreet Backpack Outreach program, which mentors Stockton middle school students as they make the transition to high school and encourages them to consider college.

Sometimes they help at risk students see the possibility of a successful future:

On Wednesday, Sasai, along with 11 other Pacific students, went to August School in east Stockton to start mentorships with soon-to-be high schoolers as part of his HopeStreet Backpack Outreach, a program Sasai founded in 2011.

The middle school students received backpacks for starters. But the most valuable gift is perhaps the mentors themselves.

They’ll be responsible for giving the August students advice throughout their upcoming high school careers about peer pressure, homework and even how to ask a girl to prom.

“Don’t ask a girl to prom over text,” Sasai said, and giggles followed. “It makes it awkward.”

Sasai offered the younger students Pacific campus tours when they’re ready and provided his contact information. “I want you guys to ask me anything,” he said.

The ongoing contact is a much appreciated resource at August, which has a largely disadvantaged student population, said Principal Lori Risso. All of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches.

“A lot of the kids think they can’t afford to go to college,” Risso said. The Pacific volunteers, she said, can relate to the kids and encourage them to seek scholarships and other financial aid.

“It makes the vision of going to high school and college possible.”

Kyle who excels in the classroom as a political science major and a member of the Pacific Legal Scholars program, has proven that academic excellence can go together seemlessly with community leadership.

Sasai . . . founded the program his first year of college. Since then, he has gathered volunteers to fill backpacks, write the kids letters and train for the continuing interaction.

Pacific mentors are each assigned about five students to befriend and help guide.

With the students they reached this year, they have connected with 500 middle school students since 2011.

 

Your 112th Congress: Most. Polarized. Ever.

The DW-NOMINATE scores for the 112th Congress were released by VoteView yesterday (original post). The title of this post gives the punchline away, but according to the NOMINATE measure the 112th Congress was the most polarized since Reconstruction. Here’s the graph to go with it:

NOMINATE uses every vote cast during a congress to estimate the ideological positions of each member. Since membership overlaps and individual members’ ideologies do not change much over time, it is possible to compare comparing the ideology of members today with members from the past. The measure is scaled from -1 (the most liberal member) to +1 (the most conservative member). What you see above is the ideological distance between the average Republican and the average Democrat in the House and Senate over time.

Where does all that polarization come from? Mostly the Republican Party, though note that this is not anything new. The average Republican has been getting more conservative since the mid-1970’s.

Here’s VoteView’s statement:

The 112th Congress closed unceremoniously this month with a series of votes (by the House and Senate) to avert the “fiscal cliff”. With this data, we can now analyze roll call voting in the 112th Congress in its entirety and place the amount of Congressional polarization seen over the last two years in historical context. … And … this phenomenon has been asymmetric: contemporary polarization of the parties is almost entirely due to the movement of congressional Republicans to the right. Polarization is measured as the difference between the Republican and Democratic means on the first DW-NOMINATE dimension, which represents the ideological (liberal-conservative) scale.

Did Outside Money Matter in House Races?

In our local congressional contest, Jerry McNerney’s campaign was not only out raised and out spent by Ricky Gill’s campaign (at least through the third quarter), but Republican aligned outside groups also spent far more money on behave of Gill than Democratic aligned groups spent on behalf of McNerney. The Center for Responsive Politics data show a nearly 5:1 advantage for Gill in outside spending. (Outside groups spent $4.80 on behalf of Gill for every $1 spent on behalf of McNerney.) Despite this imbalance, Gill lost.

What about other House contests? Did outside spending make a difference across the country? In a word, no. The result we saw here, according to an analysis by Lee Drutman, Alexander Furnas, Amy Cesal and Alex Engler at the Sunlight Foundation, was repeated in House races across the country.

They write:

One of the emerging post-campaign narratives is that all the outside money (more than $1.3 billion) that poured into the 2012 election didn’t buy much in the way of victories. And as we dig through the results in detail (our extensive data visualizations and analysis are below), the story holds up: we can find no statistically observable relationship between the outside spending and the likelihood of victory.

The kicker in the analysis is this chart:

The vertical axis is the Republican’s vote share. The horizontal axis is the Republican’s advantage in outside spending. Can you spot a relationship? I can’t.

So why didn’t outside spending matter much in 2012? Drutman and his colleagues offer a handful of explanations:

  1. National factors were more important.
  2. Outside spending produced a backlash.
  3. Money has diminishing marginal returns.
  4. Outside spending is more about offense.
  5. Candidate spending matters more.

I’m not sure which of these I agree with most. What about you?

[h/t the Monkey Cage]

Institutionalism (and the Limits Thereof)

September 11, 2012 4 comments

One of main theoretical perspectives in political science is new institutionalism. Although this concept can take a number of forms (see here), the basic idea is that rules governing a particular kind of political behavior affect the final outcomes we see. So, for example, the fact that would-be presidential candidates have to campaign in a large number of state primaries early in the year (a phenomenon called frontloading) means that they spend a significant amount of time the year before working to gain the support of party elites.

One of the key insights of the new institutionalism is that the rules matter. The implication is that if you want to get a different result, perhaps you should try changing the rules. More than many state, California has long taken this insight to heart. In the last election we say two significant, institutional changes implemented in an effort to change the political culture in Sacramento.

The first change was the creation of the Citizens Redistricting Commission (CRC). The CRC was created by Prop. 11 (2008) to draw all state-level legislative districts, and its authority was expanded by Prop. 20 (2010) to include congressional districts. The hope was that by taking control over redistricting away from the state legislature, California would get better, more competitive districts, which would force candidates to moderate their partisanship.

The second change was the adoption of the top-two or majority runoff system of elections (Prop. 14). Instead of a series of partisan nominating contests–wherein registered partisans vote for a set of party nominees–followed by a general election contest among all the party nominees, California now has a a two-stage electoral process. In the first stage, all the candidates who filed for office compete for votes. Any registered voter can caste her ballot for any candidate, just as in the November election. The top two vote getters (and only the top two) in this first stage election then face each other in a run-off election in November. Here again, the goal was to reduce the influence of partisanship. In this case, the assumption was that by opening up the electorate, candidates would have to moderate their stances in order to be one of the top two.

One of the primary criticisms of the new institutionalism is that it focuses attention on the wrong place. Here, the hope is that by changing the way districts are drawn and who gets to vote for what candidates, candidates will change their behavior. But what if neither really makes a difference? What if the source of partisanship behavior–and the perceived disfunction in Sacramento–doesn’t stem from the rules but other actors? Most of the research on the effects of redistricting (see here, here, and here) and electoral systems (see here, here, and here) on partisanship indicate that it comes from (a) party actors who screen candidates, (b) the kinds of candidates who seek office, and (c) the preferences of voters (though, importantly, not the difference between primary and general election voters). The electoral rules don’t affect these factors.

So does this mean the new institutionalism is wrong to focus on the importance of the rules? No. It just means you have to target the reform at the right source. So far

The California State Capitol building in Sacra...

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

, Californians haven’t done that.

Republican Exceptionalism? Or What Happened to the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment?

September 3, 2012 14 comments
Seal of the United States Department of State.

Seal of the United States Department of State. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome back! This is the first in our annual series of “Applying Political Science” posts. In a series of weekly posts, University of the Pacific Political Scientists will demonstrate how the tools of political science–concepts, analytical approaches, theories, etc.) can help us explain and understand current affairs. It being campaign season, you can expect a number of posts regarding the 2012 elections. You will also see discussions of a wide range of non-election matters.

My primary interest in political science is International Relations and, specifically, foreign policy. In not particular order, here are a few observations about a particularly interesting aspect of the current presidential campaign.

American Exeptionalism. More years ago than I care to remember I published a book called Consensus and the American Mission. It was an effort to see how various strains of American Exceptionalism had affected U.S. foreign policy during different periods of the Cold War. Back then the phrase “American Exceptionalism” was not used very much in academic discussions and not at all in public rhetoric. But these days, it seems that everybody is an American Exceptionalist. Madeline Albright, a Clinton secretary of state, and President Obama have both called the US the “indispensable nation.”

The Republicans, though, seem to have decided that American Exceptionalism is their foreign policy brand. In a recent interview, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice offered that Governor Romney’s foreign policy advantage over President Obama is that Romney “would understand American Exceptionalism.” In fact, the platform adopted by the Republican National Convention last week simply calls its section of foreign and national security policy “American Exceptionalism.”

We are the party of peace through strength. Professing American exceptionalism – the conviction that our country holds a unique place and role in human history – we proudly associate ourselves with those Americans of all political stripes who, more than three decades ago in a world as dangerous as today’s, came together to advance the cause of freedom. Repudiating the folly of an amateur foreign policy and defying a worldwide Marxist advance, they announced their strategy in the timeless slogan we repeat today: peace through strength – an enduring peace based on freedom and the will to defend it, and American democratic values and the will to promote them. While the twentieth century was undeniably an American century – with strong leadership, adherence to the principles of freedom and democracy our Founders’ enshrined in our nation’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and a continued reliance on Divine Providence – the twenty-first century will be one of American greatness as well.

It is never a good thing-on any position of the political spectrum–to allow a slogan to substitute for careful thought. So, here are a few things to think about regarding American Exceptionalism and US foreign policy.

The major analytical approaches in International Relations generally don’t have much use for exceptionalist ideas. Realists like Stephen M. Walt tend to regard American Exceptionalism as a myth and a dangerous, self-deluding one at that. For realists, all states use power to pursue their interests in a competitive world. An ideology like American Exceptionalism–the belief that the US is a uniquely virtuous country with a special mission in the world–is likely to lead to imprudent and probably dangerous behavior in the world. Liberals conclude that it may be necessary for “an indispensable nation” to step up in order to provide critical international public goods. On the other hand, no nation is likely to be THE indispensable nation forever or in every situation. Exceptionalist rhetoric may coincidentally lead the US to step us in crucial situations, but it could also ironically lead the US away from providing the “best shot” to providing international public goods. Indeed, there is a whiff of desperation in the insistence on American Exceptionalism. Assuming that the US cannot maintain its recent hegemonic position in world affairs, crowing about our exceptionalism seems more like denial, and an unfortunate putting off of thinking seriously about US strategy in world where US power is not supreme. 

In addition, like many slogans “American Exceptionalism” conceals a vital debate about what, if anything, is exceptional about the US. Is it the political economy of relatively unregulated capitalism? Is it a stride toward freedom in the working out of democratic political institutions? Is it the rule of law and the realization of equal rights under law? Is it an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil? Is it the preservation of the essence of Western Civilization? All of these have their roots in the US experience and US culture. But there are obvious tensions among these versions of American exceptionalism. To allow “American Exceptionalism” to be treated as a simple slogan would be to risk instituting the version favored by whoever can shout loudest. That would shut down necessary critical voices.

As is so often true, clear thinking is not the result of simplistic slogans.

For more on the death of the Republican Foreign Policy Establishment, check this space later in the semester.

Elinor Ostrom Dies

Photo by Ric Cradick

Via the Monkey Cage:

Nobel Prize winner and political scientist Elinor Ostrom has died. Dr. Ostrom is primarily known for her work on collective action problems and how societies solve them (see her book Governing the Commons), for which she won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics. She took issue with the idea that governments are always necessary to reach socially optimal outcomes (although they are necessary in some cases), and instead believed that communities can and do solve these kinds problems on their own.

Here’s an interview Dr. Ostrom did with NPR’s Planet Money team after winning the Nobel, where she explains her pioneering work on the tragedy–or, as she calls it, the problem–of the commons. Be sure to listen for the deer.

Update: Here’s Indiana University’s obituary for Dr. Ostrom.

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