Are Governors Responsible for the State Economy? Partisanship, Blame, and Divided Federalism

This is a review of Are Governors Responsible for the State Economy? Partisanship, Blame, and Divided Federalism (2010) by Adam R. Brown. Journal of Politics 72 (July): 605-615. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

When there is an easy chance for people to pass the blame onto a party they don’t like, they’ll take it

Tooting my own horn: Here’s the university’s press release for my recent article. It gets things mostly right.

A down economy usually spells trouble for incumbents, but a new study shows that six Republicans up for re-election this year caught a break when John McCain lost the last presidential election.

The analysis found that some voters are less objective (and more forgiving) in evaluating their governor’s economic performance if the White House is controlled by the opposing political party.

“When there is an easy chance for people to pass the blame onto a party they don’t like, they’ll take it,” said Adam Brown, assistant professor of political science.

The study, which appears in the current issue of the Journal of Politics, found that whenever the president and the governor belong to opposing parties, voters will overestimate the policy success of the level of government their preferred party controls. This means that members of the governor’s party will paint a rosier picture of their state’s economy when the White House is controlled by a member of an opposing party.

Read More »

The Electoral Costs of Party Loyalty in Congress

This is a review of The Electoral Costs of Party Loyalty in Congress (2010) by Jamie L. Carson, Gregory Koger, Matthew J. Lebo, and Everett Young. American Journal of Political Science 54 (July): 598-616. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Voters dislike partisans more than ideologues.

Yesterday, I wrote about Ansolabehere and Jones’s article in AJPS showing that voters really do hold members of Congress accountable for their voting record in Congress. On the very next page in AJPS, we find another article on the same theme. But Carson et al. want to change the way we think about this accountability. Usually, we think about the correlation between the voter’s and the member’s ideology. That’s the approach Ansolabehere and Jones took, since they were comparing voter preferences on specific issues to actual roll call votes on those same issues.

Carson et al. say that we should look at the partisan tilt of each member’s voting record. Look at partisanship, not ideology. Of course, ideology and partisanship are closely related. But Carson et al. argue that voters are more willing to tolerate ideological extremity than partisan extremity. In political sciency terms, voters would rather tolerate a bad DW-NOMINATE score than a bad party unity score. They back this claim up with both experimental and observational evidence.

Read More »

Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting

This is a review of Constituents’ Responses to Congressional Roll-Call Voting (2010) by Stephen Ansolabehere and Philip Edward Jones. American Journal of Political Science 54 (July): 583-597. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

Voters really do hold members of Congress accountable for their voting records.

Turns out that democracy works, at least when it comes to voters holding members of Congress accountable for their voting record. For accountability to happen, we need to see three things: (1) Voters need to have specific opinions on specific issues before Congress; (2) voters need to know how their member of Congress actually voted on those issues; and (3) the voter’s agreement with the member’s voting record should have a strong effect on the voter’s decision to vote (or not) for the member of Congress.

Political scientists have spilled a lot of ink over the past several decades debating whether all that really happens. Ansolabehere and Jones ran a survey to find out. Surprisingly, that hadn’t been done before. Turns out democracy isn’t quite perfect, but it works well enough. They look at each of the three steps listed above: Read More »

The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market

This is a review of The World Wide Web and the U.S. Political News Market (2010) by Norman H. Nie, Darwin W., III Miller, Saar Golde, Daniel M. Butler, and Kenneth Winneg. American Journal of Political Science 54 (April): 428-439. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

People who visit online news and political sites are more politically extreme.

No serious observer of American politics would be surprised if you made two basic claims: (1) Small-circulation media outlets (websites, cable channels, independent newspapers) can be far more ideologically extreme than large-circulation outlets (network news) that need to appeal to a large audience to remain profitable, and (2) people prefer media sources that confirm their existing biases.

In the most recent issue of AJPS, Nie and his colleagues have an article that makes those two claims. The claims seem perfectly plausible. And they present well-executed research backing them up. Their findings are consistent with a string of previous work making the same argument and coming to the same conclusion (they list several such studies along the way). The main difference: Previous studies have operationalized “small-circulation outlets” as talk radio or cable television, but Nie et al look at internet news sites. They find that more ideologically extreme folks are more likely to visit online news sites. Read More »

The 2010 State Politics and Policy Conference

A few random observations from the 10th annual state politics conference, held last week in Abraham Lincoln’s home town:

Thad Kousser: Ask anybody here what a “good” state legislature should look like. Can anybody actually answer that? Seth Masket: Campaigns can matter. In districts that Colorado’s wealthy Democrats targeted via 527s, Democratic candidates for state legislature did 4% better than in previous elections. Apparently, a team of four extremely wealthy Democratic donors singlehandedly swung the legislature to the Democrats. Adam Brown: Self-financed spending is not strategic. Candidates spend if they have it, regardless of their likelihood of victory. (Yes, that was a shameless self-promotion.)

David Konisky and Neal Woods: Smart state governments should encourage their biggest polluters to locate along state boundaries. That way, the state can reap the benefits of industry, but let all the pollution drift into neighboring states. Great theoretical story. Awesome maps showing locations of all polluters in each state. Trouble is, the presentation ended with Konisky saying that all the empirical tests produced null results. There’s no evidence that states are actually doing this. As far as the “gotcha” goes, what a letdown. But I suppose we should be glad about these null findings. Emily Huston: HAVA set minimal standards for voter identification, but allowed states to impose stricter standards. Why did some states impose strict standards but others did not? Emily threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall, but none of it stuck. The question remains unanswered. That’s two “null results” papers in one panel.

Chris Mooney: The coolest guy in state politics. Received several well-deserved honors, including a giant red pen to commemorate his work as founding editor of State Politics and Policy Quarterly.

Dan Smith and Michael McDonald apparently make a LOT of money as expert witnesses in lawsuits. And Bob Erikson looks surprisingly like the late Senator Ted Kennedy.

Boris Shor will release his common-space scores of legislators’ ideal points later this summer after a publication in LSQ comes out. Woot! (See an example of what you can do with his data.) Jim Battista and Megan Gall are assembling demographic data for all 7,380 legislative districts by matching census tracts to districts. Sounds painstaking. No word yet on whether they’ll release the data publicly so that we can all freeride. Battista/Gall’s data combined with Shor’s could be awesome.

Read tweets sent during the conference by searching Twitter for hashtag #sppc.

Partisan Polarization and Congressional Accountability in House Elections

This is a review of Partisan Polarization and Congressional Accountability in House Elections (2010) by David R. Jones. American Journal of Political Science 54 (April): 323-337. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

It may have been true 20, 30, or 40 years ago that members of Congress could evade accountability for Congress’s overall activities, but rising polarization has enabled voters to punish or reward Representatives for Congress’s collective performance.

Shortly before the 2008 Congressional elections, only 36% believed that most members of Congress deserved reelection. These numbers were not unusual. Since consistent polling began in the 1970s, Congressional approval has rarely been higher than 40%. Nevertheless, 94% of U.S. House members won reelection.1

For years, political scientists have explained this seeming paradox by pointing out that members of Congress can win reelection by running against Congress. A representative can urge his voters to send him back time after time so that he can keep working to fix the broken system. As Fenno wrote in Home Style, “It is easy for each Congressman to explain to his own supporters why he cannot be blamed for the performance of the collectivity . . . because the internal diversity and decentralization of the institution provide such a wide variety of collegial villains to flay before one’s supporters at home” (1978, 167).2

In his textbook on Congressional elections, Gary Jacobson sums up the dominant view among political scientists: “Members are not held individually responsible for their collective performance in governing.” (2004, 227).

David Jones has a recent article in AJPS that challenges this long held view. Jones looks back 60 years to a report commissioned in 1950 by the American Political Science Association Toward a More Responsive Two-Party System. That report urged “greater party cohesion in Congress,” suggesting that the presence of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats makes it more difficult for individual voters to hold their representative accountable for Congress’s collective activities.

Jones argues that the APSA report was correct: If the two parties become more distinct (i.e. polarized), then it should be easier for voters to blame members of the majority party for Congress’s collectively bad (or good) performance. And, as it happens, there’s been quite a bit of research in recent years showing that Congress has, in fact, become more polarized.

If Jones is right, then we’re in a new era. It may have been true 20, 30, or 40 years ago that members of Congress could evade accountability for Congress’s overall activities, but rising polarization has enabled voters to punish or reward Representatives for Congress’s collective performance. Read More »

The Declining Talent Pool of Government

This is a review of The Declining Talent Pool of Government (2010) by Torun Dewan and David P. Myatt. American Journal of Political Science 54 (April): 267-286. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

The “benchwarmer” dilemma: You want your best 11 players on the field, but in order to motivate your players, you’ve got to threaten to replace them with an inferior player from the bench.

Imagine you’re a soccer coach. You’ve got 14 players on your roster, 11 of whom are on the field at any given time. How do you motivate your players to give it their best? In part, their personal ambitions drive them to play hard. But what “sticks” as a coach do you have to punish slacking off? You’ve got only one punishment: Taking a player off the field and substituting a player off the bench.

This creates what we might call “the declining talent pool of soccer,” or more simply, the “benchwarmer” dilemma: You want your best 11 players on the field, but in order to motivate your players, you’ve got to threaten to replace them with an inferior player from the bench. Thus, one of these situations may result: Your 11 best players might give less than a full effort (knowing that their imperfect effort is still better than a benchwarmer’s full effort), or your inferior benchwarming players might be the ones you put on the field.

The same problem arises when choosing government officials. The result is inferior governance. Read More »

Broad Bills or Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures

This is a review of Broad Bills of Particularistic Policy? Historical Patterns in American State Legislatures (2010) by Gerald Gamm and Thad Kousser. American Political Science Review 104 (February): 151-170. You can find the original in Google Scholar.

If you want your legislators to pass general policies that benefit the state as a whole, pay them less, make districts bigger, and strive for partisan balance. If you want your legislators to pass pork and other district-focused bills, pay them more, make districts smaller, and promote one-party government.

When will state legislators take on broad revisions to state policy, and when will they focus instead on particularistic bills (that is, bills that benefit only their home district)?

Broad bills ensure that general state policies remain current and fair, but legislators might avoid them for two reasons. First, they are technically complicated; if you wish to revise the state highway code, for example, you will need expert advice and probably a few studies. Second, they are politically difficult to pass; since they influence the entire state, you’ve got to work to bring a coalition of legislators on board with your proposal. By contrast, “district” bills are technically less complicated; the process of campaigning generally gives legislators all the information they need about some pressing local problem. District bills are also politically easier to pass; since they don’t have any impact outside of a small geographical area, other legislators have no reason to oppose most district bills.

By examining every bill introduced in 13 states in 1881, 1901, 1921, 1941, 1961, 1981, and 1997–that’s over 165,000 bills–Gamm and Kousser try to explain why some states produce so many more district bills than others. In Alabama, only 53% of bills had statewide impact; in Nebraska, 77% did. In general, Gamm and Kousser find that states pass more district bills when legislators have incentives to build up their reelection constituency or to make themselves stand out as an individual, but they pass more statewide bills when legislators have incentives to develop their influence and power within the state legislature. There’s more to it than that, though. Read More »