And Oscar’s Campaign Contributions Go To . . .

February 22, 2015 Leave a comment

Last weekend was really busy and I failed to post a news item from my introductory US government and politics class. Sorry about that. We had some very interesting submissions, really we did.

Lots of interesting articles and posts sent in by my students again this week. Everything from evidence that Barack Obama really hearts America to Oklahoma’s efforts to spin the AP history exam to a fascinating article about Trinity Industries’ efforts to lobby states’ attorneys general.

But it’s Oscars night. The celebrities are on the red carpet and, so, our featured article this week has an Academy Awards theme.

Political Scientists love data and while federal election law may not do much to discourage floods of money going into campaigns, it has provided us with lots of data about who gives how much to whom.

Analysts from Crowdpac, a group that compiles campaign finance data, examined records of actors, producers, directors and crew members who worked on this year’s Oscar-nominated films in search of a correlation between the message of their film and the political views of their creators.

Crowdpac assigned each person a score based on their donor history, ranking them from most liberal to most conservative. The analysts then tallied an average score for each Best Picture-nominated movie.

Here’s how it breaks down for the Oscar-nominated films (film/liberal index (out of 10)/number of donors/total contributions):

Imitation Game – 9.4L (4 donors – $4,441)

Birdman – 9.2L (16 donors – $518,602)

Selma – 9L (8 donors – $448,408)

Boyhood – 8.7L (11 donors – $39,515)

Whiplash – 8.6L (7 donors – $33,859)

Grand Budapest Hotel – 8.4L (6 donors – $23,500)

Theory of Everything – 6.3L (1 donor – $19,281)

American Sniper – 3.1L (9 donors – $55,959)

It won’t surprise many to see that the donors associated with these films tend to the liberal end of the spectrum, or that American Sniper is the least liberal-leaning film in tonight’s competition.

But maybe there is room for a methodological debate here. After all, if you follow the Auteur theory of cinema, maybe we should only count donations from a film’s director (and maybe screenwriter). I mean, do the Key Grip’s contributions really affect the politics of a film?

Categories: Uncategorized

Could Republicans Replace Obamacare?

February 8, 2015 Leave a comment

My introductory US politics students have concluded their multi-week immersion in playing the Reacting to the Past Game–America’s Founding: The Constitutional Convention of 1787 and having adopted an interesting draft for a constitution, they are returning to a more traditional classroom mode.

This week they began in earnest to nominate news articles or blog posts that they think raise interesting issues about US government and politics. I’ll be featuring one or two of their nominations each week for the next few months.

First up is Freda Pu, who found this interesting Wonkblog post called Here’s How the GOP Would Repeal and Replace Obamacare.

Writes Freda,

In class we briefly touched upon medicare and how politics and the supreme court impacts federal decisions. This article was posted two days ago and I thought it was interesting because prior towards this article I was not aware that the republican party wants to change the current obama health care plan.

Of course, another question is whether even though they now control both houses of Congress, Republicans could pass replacement legislation. Claire Stevens nominated a Politico story examining the difficulties of getting the House and Senate on the same page on immigration policy.

Claire says,

I think that it illustrates something that we have seen repeatedly over the course of the [Reacting to the Past Game]. This article is about how the House and the Senate are having trouble getting certain things passed, or even debated about, and how the members of Congress are having to walk a tightrope, so to speak, with their actions. This relates both to playing the [game], where multiple characters held to (or tried, at least) their opinions without wavering or wanting to give much of any consensus. At the same time, it also illustrates the balance of power idea, and how sometimes it balances power in such a way that nothing really gets done.

Claire might have added that Madison in Federalist #51 anticipated that the Senate would often serve as a check on the enthusiasms of the House.

American Government and Politics Students on Current Events

January 19, 2015 1 comment

This semester my students are monitoring the news and sending me their weekly suggestions articles to read about events and issues they think are interesting and important for students of American politics to follow. Every week I will be posting the top articles that they send me here.

I did not receive many suggested articles last week, It was the first week of classes and students are busy preparing for an intensive simulation of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

However, Juan Aguirre did send a link to this article about terror cells in Belgium.

Dealing with what may be a new phase of terrorist operations will create problems for governments all over the world, including the U.S.

Watch us every week for more news items suggested by my students.

Categories: Uncategorized

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.


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