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A Response to George Skelton

September 17, 2013 1 comment

So this response is a day late (and maybe a dollar short). Yesterday, one of the deans of the California politics press, George Skelton of the Los Angeles Times, published a column lauding the recent California legislative session as a turning point. He wrote, “It’s a new era in Sacramento — a markedly improved one, so far. Watching the lawmakers, you don’t cringe nearly as much. They’re actually getting things done in the state Capitol. You can set aside that old label ‘dysfunctional.'”

Skelton argues that the legislature’s new found functionality comes from three recent reforms approved by voters:

  • Term limit reform (Prop. 28, 2012), which he argues allows legislators to develop a sense of stability
  • The top-two primary (Prop. 14, 2010), which he argues makes it easier to elect new blood into the legislature
  • The work of the California Citizen’s Redistricting Commission in drawing legislative district (Prop. 20, 2010), which he argues reduced the degree of strident partisanship in the legislature

While, admittedly, I don’t live and breath Sacramento politics the way that Mr. Skelton does, my response is, “No, no, and no!”

The study of Congress has taught us that there are two primary causes of legislative gridlock: (1) ideological differences between the two chambers of the legislature and (2) divided government. The greater the ideological distance between the two chambers (see Congress right now, where Republicans control the House and Democrats control the Senate) the greater the degree of legislative gridlock. If the legislature and the executive are controlled by different parties (see President Obama (D) versus the House Republicans), then we can expect still more legislative gridlock. Some would add a third cause: The number of seats that the majority party holds relative to those held by the minor party. The bigger the difference in the number of seats held by the two parties, the less gridlock we should see.

If we look at the California legislature following the 2012 elections, what do we see? We see both chambers dominated by Democrats, which minimizes degree to which there will be significant ideological differences between the two chambers. Moreover, Democrats have a 2/3 voting majority in both chambers, which means they have a huge seat margin relative to the Republicans. In an era of simple majority budgeting (Prop. 25, 2010) the Democrats don’t have to worry about negotiating with recalcitrant Republicans. They don’t even need to worry about Democratic defections on most votes. At the same time, we also see that Democrats control both the Governor’s office and the legislature, which minimizes the likelihood of significant conflict between the two branches of government (especially in an age of hyper-partisanship).

I personally would add in the fact that the state’s fiscal situation has improved sufficiently that legislators no longer feel that they have to protect their preferred policies and programs from budget cuts, which makes everyone feel better in the abstract. (The literature on Congress, however, doesn’t suggest this is important in determining the level of gridlock.)

So what, then, do I think has led to the improved situation in Sacramento? The fact that the Democrats now control all the levers of power. (And, by the way, I would expect similar stories of a miraculous change in the culture of Sacramento if Republicans somehow magically controlled all the levers too.) The institutional reforms enacted by California voters may yet create a change in the Capitol’s culture and behavior, but I don’t think they have done so yet.

Prop. 14 and California’s Minor Parties

So after not posting anything new for a while, you get a couple posts one right after the other.

My article, “Proposition 14 and California’s Minor Parties: A Case Study of Electoral Reform and Party Response,” is now available from the California Journal of Politics and Policy here (gated unfortunately; here’s the version I will be presenting at MPSA next month). Here’s the abstract:

In 2010, California voters enacted Proposition 14, the Top Two Candidates Open Primary Act, which changed California’s electoral system from single-member, plurality district elections to a top two (majority) runoff system. Although literature in comparative politics and formal theory suggests this change should help third parties in California, almost 80% fewer minor-party candidates filed for office in 2012 than in 2010. Indeed, 2012 saw the smallest number of minor-party candidates in California since 1966. Employing a mixed-methods approach, this paper examines different explanations for the decline in minor-party candidacies. Although most observers argue that Proposition 14 directly discouraged minor-party candidates from filing for office (because they likely would not make the runoff ballot), I argue that the decline results from three other factors: (1) a long-run decline in the California Libertarian Party, (2) a legislature-driven increase in the filing fee required from minor-party candidates, and, most importantly, (3) party elites foregoing candidate recruitment in 2012.

If their publishing schedule looks like last year’s, it will be in the upcoming June issue.

The Future of California Politics?

The California Department of Finance released its new population projections for California counties through 2060. There are a whole bunch of goodies in the report, so I thought I would highlight a few of them here.

First, by 2050, Hispanics are projected to be the plurality ethnicity in California. Here’s the projected ethnic makeup (see p. 6) of California in 2010 and 2060:

PopProjectionsBy 2060, Hispanics will make up 48% of the population (up from 38%), Whites will be 30% of the population (down from 40%), Asian and Pacific Islanders will be 13% (same), African Americans will be 4% (down from 6%), and everyone else will be 5% of the population.

In terms of future voters, these changes have potentially significant implications for California politics. I am not one of the people who thinks that “demographics are destiny” in terms of party politics, at least over the long run, so I don’t think these changes mean that the Republican Party is looking at long term irrelevance in California. If the party keeps its current platform, sure, but there is no reason it has to. Both parties, though, are going to have to adapt to the changing electorate as the issue sets of Hispanic voters are different than the issue sets of white voters.

Second, California will remain relatively young relative to the rest of the country. Our economy (and our budget) will not be as heavily impacted by the Baby Boomers and Generation X moving into retirement. There will still be significant demand, and resources, for public education. The aging of the population will not be uniformly distributed across ethnicities, which will also have significant implications for politics. Whites will grow older faster than any other ethnic group. By 2030, there will be more whites over the age of 65 than under the age of 25 in California. In contrast, there will by almost three times as many Hispanics under the age of 25 as there are Hispanics over the age of 65.

Third, the population–and therefore power–will continue to move inland. Southern California (particularly Los Angeles County) will remain the 800-pound gorilla in California politics, but the Central Valley (Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys) and the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside) will see their relative populations grow with the rest of the state seeing their relative populations decline. The Central Valley will see its relative population grow 27% between 2010 and 2060. The Inland Empire will see relative growth of 28%. The Bay Area, in contrast, is projected to see the steepest decline in its relative population (down 10%). These changes mean that over time the Central Valley and Inland Empire will gain representatives in Sacramento and Washington DC while other areas see their representation decine.

Fourth, San Joaquin County will more than double in size between 2010 and 2060. San Joaquin will go from being the 15th largest county in California (with just under 700,000 residents) to the 12th largest county (with over 1.5 million residents). Hispanics will account for more than half of this growth.

 

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.

So, How Did the Minor Party and No Preference Candidates Do?

One consequence of Proposition 14 is that there were almost no legislative contests this year featuring minor-party candidates. As I previously argued, Proposition 14 combined with the legislature’s increase in filing fees essentially ended the idea of a third-party candidacy in California. As a result, just three minor-party candidates (all from the Peace and Freedom Party) and five No Party Preference (NPP) candidates appeared on the November ballot.

How did these eight candidates do against their major-party opposition? With two notable exceptions (discussed below), they performed as well as past candidates in similar situations– i.e., not well at all. Over the last five election cycles, there have been 31 contests where a major-party candidate (Democratic or Republican) faced just one independent or minor-party candidate. In every case, the major-party candidate won, usually by a lot. The following table shows the average vote share for the major-party candidate in these contests:

The average vote share for major-party candidates was a little lower in 2012 than in prior years. Whereas the average winning vote share was about 80% previously, in 2012 these candidates still averaged just 75% of the vote across the eight contests.

The following figure shows the average vote share for each of these 31 candidates by election cycle. The large standard deviations for 2008 and 2012 in Table 1 are the result of three contests, all against independent or NPP candidates. In 2008, Abel Maldonado (R), who was instrumental in giving California Proposition 14, faced a strong independent challenger, Jim Fitzgerald. Maldonado won with 63% of the vote. This year, Henry Waxman (D) beat Bill Bloomfield (NPP) with just 53% of the vote. Also in 2012, incumbent Democratic Assemblyman James Paul Fong beat Chad Walsh (NPP) with 62% of the vote. Pull these three contests out, and 2008 and 2012 look just like 2006 in Table 1.

So, to sum up. Did independents (NPP) and minor-party candidates do any better under the top two system than under California’s previous system? Not really. The Fong and Waxman contests are worth some additional exploration in this regard, but even with these contests the major party candidates won by quite a lot on average.

Update [11/16]: The above graph doesn’t appropriately convey the futility of candidates running against otherwise unopposed major-party candidates. Here’s another take:

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]

The Popular Vote and the Electoral Vote

I did something like this in 2008, but it’s worth another mention in the context of the 2012 election. The Electoral College exaggerates the support that the winning presidential candidate receives. The graph below shows the percentage of the two-party (Republican and Democratic) popular vote received by the winner and the percentage of the electoral vote received by the winner. The 45-degree line shows what a one-to-one relationship would be between these two measures.

The 2012 election is buried in the bottom, left-hand corner of the graph. President Obama won 51.2% of the two-party popular vote this year. Now that Gov. Romney has conceded Florida, and assuming all the electors remain faithful, President Obama will receive 61.7% of the electoral vote. Both numbers are down from 2008, when Pres. Obama received 51.9% of the two-party popular vote and 64.5% of the electoral vote.

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