The New New York State Assembly Speaker is Pretty Unusual

Sheldon Silver, New York State’s iconic Assembly Speaker, was forced to resign after being charged with serious federal corruption charges. Bronx Democrat Carl Heastie is going to ascend to the position sometime on Tuesday, after his last competitor, Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, dropped out of the race to succeed Silver.

I tweeted on Saturday that I was surprised by this turn of events. This was after another competitor, Democratic Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (apparently the favored candidate of Governor Cuomo), had dropped out of the race.

I was surprised because Carl Heastie is fairly extreme ideologically. Yet almost all the attention in the discussion about the speaker’s succession has been about race, potential ethical issues, and a real or imagined power play between Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio.

Our state legislative ideology data set provides me with the data for this post. The current release of the data has data into 2013, but we are currently working on extending that data set into 2015. I don’t have the newest members serving in 2015, but they are relatively few as the chamber isn’t very competitive. So I’m just using the scores and composition of the chamber as of 2014.

Sheldon Silver is in the most liberal fifth of his party in the Assembly. Nolan has basically the same ideological profile as Silver. In contrast, Morelle is a little to the right of the median Democrat. Carl Heastie, on the other hand, is the fifth most liberal Democrat (only Weinstein, Rosenthal, Glick, and Robinson to his left) in the Assembly, out of a total of 106. And it’s not like Silver, Nolan, or even Morelle are hardline conservatives. The New York State Democratic party is amongst the most liberal in the country, alongside California and Vermont’s Democrats.

This is a puzzle because I’d expect New York Democrats to pick someone closer to their ideological center. This should be due, crudely speaking, to the median voter theorem. A simple majority-rule election should have the property of privileging centrist candidates. Just look at the 113th Congress US House leadership team of John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarty, who were just about at the center of their party in the House.

A recent paper by Stephen Jessee and Neil Malhotra shows empirical evidence for this notion: party leaders in Congress tend to be not very far from the center, especially in comparison to their competitors for the offices (Democrats do shade somewhat to the left and Republicans to the right of their party medians). In this case, however, the winning candidate is especially far relative to not only the party as a whole, but in comparison to his announced competitors.

What’s going on here? Are states that different from Congress? Or is something peculiar about New York in particular? I’m not sure, but events like this get me thinking about new research projects …

 

Updated (July 2014) State Legislator Ideology Scores Posted

Yesterday I posted the aggregate, state-level ideology and polarization data for our state legislature ideology data. That is actually based on legislator-level data. Today, we are posting and making public and free that individual level data.

We have extended the data collection through 2013, and we now have 20,198 unique state legislators in our data, or about 11% more than the previous update from May 2013.

As I mentioned yesterday, we have spent a lot of time and effort cleaning up the data; there should be far fewer noise-related issues. But please let us know if you see particular problems.

New this year is a district-by-year indicator, as these legislators do change districts over time.

You can find the data here.

Bugs should be reported to us.

 

State Legislative Ideology and Polarization in 2013-14

Today we posted the July 2014 update to our state legislative aggregate ideology data. One of the major features to this data release has been the incorporation of much more current roll call (1993-2013) and candidate survey (1996-2014) data. All in all, we have added about 25% more chamber-years of data.

Here’s a look at the average legislative ideology  nearly all 50 states that we have data on in 2013-2014 (the data is from 2013 but nearly all states have elections in even-numbered years, hence the data apply to 2014 as well). Higher numbers are more conservative, lower numbers are more liberal. In 2013, Oklahoma had the most conservative state legislature, followed by Arkansas, Tennessee, and Idaho. If Congress were a state, 18 states would be more conservative than it!

New York was the most liberal state legislature in the country, followed by Connecticut, California, Vermont, and Hawaii.

average_ideology_2013

And the equivalent plot for polarization in 2013.

California, once again, leads the country in the ideological divide between the Republican and Democratic parties. Colorado and Arizona are close behind, gaining ground over time.

At the other end, Rhode Island, Arkansas, and Louisiana represent the least polarized legislatures. Note that Nebraska is not in this group. This is despite the fact that the Unicameral is officially nonpartisan in its organization and elections. Nebraska’s hidden parties are polarizing quite quickly.

average_polarization_2013

 

July 2014 Aggregate Data Release

We are releasing a major new version of our state and chamber-level aggregate data. Here are the highlights of the July 2014 release:

  1. In all, we have 342 additional chamber-years of new data, or about 25% more than the previous release.
  2. The data now extend through 2013 for most, but not all, states. Major holes of missing state-years have been filled.
  3. The individual level data underlying this release has been extensively cleaned and remerged to minimize noise inherent in projects like this.

You can find the data here.

The individual level data will be posted very soon, as well.

If you find the data useful, please cite it as well the 2011 article on which the data is based. Feel free to contact us if you have questions about this data.

New Preliminary 2013 Data on Polarization

I (Boris) have a new post over at the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post. It summarizes some of the posts I’ve made here, for an audience that probably hasn’t seen this blog before.

The one update is that the posts here used the most recent publicly available version of our aggregate state legislative data. That data includes the years up through 2011. The Monkey Cage post uses a preliminary update to our data set, that brings the data to 2013.

We are working on polishing this data for public release shortly.

In the meantime, here are the new plots using that data set. The graph below shows legislative polarization in each state, averaging across all the years of our data (approximately 1996-2013) and across both legislative chambers. Polarization is defined as the average ideological distance between the median Democrat and Republican in the state legislature.  Larger numbers indicate more division. The dashed line is the level of congressional polarization, included as a comparison (“US”).

state_polarization

About half of the states are even more polarized than Congress—which is saying a lot. At the same time, some states–like Louisiana, Delaware, and Rhode Island–have  relatively less polarized state legislatures. In Louisiana, both parties are fairly conservative, and in Delaware and Rhode Island, they are both fairly liberal.

One state that stands out is California. It is incredibly polarized. (And its most recent primary and redistricting reforms look unlikely to reduce polarization.) Unlike Congress, however, Democrats both dominate the state so thoroughly and no longer need to attain supermajorities to pass budgets, so this polarization is not as much of an obstacle to actual lawmaking in the California state legislature.

Another state that stands out is Wisconsin–the site of massive protests in 2011, a recall campaign against sitting governor Scott Walker, and even a physical fight between Republican and Democratic justices on its state Supreme Court.  It is perhaps no surprise that Wisconsin too is highly polarized.

Not only are states polarized, that polarization has increased over time. The graph below breaks down the trends in the ideology of Democrats and Republicans (measured by party medians) over time and across all 50 states. By convention, more positive scores represent more conservative preferences, and more negative scores represent liberal preferences. (One side-note: a data error exists in Washington State around the year 2000 and is being fixed.)

party_years

Most states have polarized over the past 20 years or so, but some more than others. Arizona, California, and Colorado are polarizing very fast. Nebraska—a state without formal political parties in its legislature—is polarizing very quickly too, though from a relatively low base.

Moreover, we are seeing asymmetric polarization, just as in Congress. Republicans have been getting more extreme faster than Democrats in more state legislative chambers, but this is by no means universally true across all states.

All in all, the picture we see in state legislatures is similar in many respects to Congress, but different in key points. The parties are pretty far apart on average, but that difference varies across the states. The parties are increasingly polarizing over time, but that too varies across state. Finally, we see cases of symmetric and asymmetric polarization. These new data on polarization at the state level—and the uneven pace of polarization across states—should help pundits and scholars figure out what’s driving polarization in our statehouses.

Asymmetric Polarization in the State Legislatures? Yes and No

Last week I showed how American state legislatures are largely polarizing over the past 15 years or so; the parties are getting ever more extreme and distant from each other, above and beyond the levels of the past. I ended that post with a question: “But which parties are driving this polarization at the state level? Are both parties at fault, or is one becoming more extreme compared to the other? That is, is state legislative polarization symmetric or asymmetric?” I will tackle this subject in my this post.

When we look at Congress over the past 20 years, we can clearly see that–in both the US House and Senate–the Republican party has gotten more extreme over time relative to the Democrats (though in the House Democrats have polarized to a smaller degree as well). This is a familiar story of asymmetric polarization. In fairness, Democrats’ move in the liberal direction started earlier than Republicans: the 1940s versus the mid 1970s. Still, in recent years, Congressional Republicans have unquestionably moved further, faster.

party_chamber_years_congress_cs

The data and method that Nolan McCarty and I have developed shed light on trends in America’s state legislatures. Let’s look at the picture graphically, plotting party medians over time, separately for each chamber (click on the graphic for a higher-resolution version). By convention, more positive scores represent more conservative preferences, and more negative scores represent liberal preferences.

party_chamber_years

Looking across the states, Republicans on the whole are clearly polarizing faster than Democrats. In 57 of the 99 state legislative chambers, they are getting more conservative over time, while in 47 chambers Democrats are getting more liberal. In 26 chambers Democrats are actually getting more conservative (eg, depolarizing), while the converse is true in 20 chambers for Republicans where they are getting more liberal. In 26 chambers Democrats are roughly stable and the same is true in 22 chambers for Republicans.

But what the data clearly reveal is that states are wildly diverse. In some states like Tennessee and Colorado, Republicans are getting more extreme in recent time, while Democrats are not changing much. But in other states like Idaho, Mississippi, and California, it is Democrats who are largely responsible for the states’ recent polarization. And finally, there are states like Texas, Missouri, and Nebraska where both parties are polarizing roughly equally and simultaneously.

So the polarization story is similar in some ways in state legislatures than in Congress: Republicans are leading the charge to the ideological poles on average. But it’s different, too: the average story obscures lots of differences across states. State polarization trends thus underline the usefulness of studying state legislatures as a laboratory for political observers: there’s just lots of variation to work with in trying to understand what causes what. And so we should look to state experiences to see whether reforms in areas like redistricting, primaries, campaign finance, and so on do anything to mitigate polarization, and whether some reforms might have unintended consequences that make it worse.

 

Polarization Trends in American State Legislatures by Chamber

The political parties in Congress are increasingly polarized in ideological terms. This is largely driven by replacement rather than adaptation; that is, moderates are increasingly leaving Congress, and being replaced by ideological extremists.

The plot below shows the difference between the Republican and Democratic party medians using Poole et al’s common space NOMINATE scores, for the 103rd (1992-1993) through the 112th (2011-2012) Congresses. Under this common measure, a larger gap between the centers of both parties indicates a greater level of polarization.polarization_congress_years_cs

Both House and Senate are polarized (the distance is greater than zero), and they are getting more so over time. The US House in particular is both more polarized in terms of level and polarizing faster in terms of trend relative to the US Senate.

What about American state legislatures? It’s important to nail down these numbers because we need to know where we stand to find out if polarization is leading to political gridlock and dysfunctional policy. We also need a barometer of polarization to find out whether reforms like opening up primaries, taking redistricting away from politicians themselves, term limits, and so forth can do anything about this yawning gap between the parties. And since there are 50 state legislatures, we might find answers to these questions more quickly and definitively than we can with Congress, of which we only have one.

Earlier in this blog I showed evidence that most state legislatures are in fact quite polarized, and a significant number of them are even more polarized than Congress. The data underlying these figures can be found here, and the paper explaining how Nolan McCarty and I came up with the numbers can be found hereNow we’ll take a more detailed look at the state polarization trends for all 50 states over time. The plot below shows the distances between the party medians for all 50 states over approximately the same time period, roughly 1996-2010.

polarization_chamber_years

As with the US Congress, all 99 state legislative chambers (Nebraska has a single chamber commonly referred to as the Unicam, which I term a Senate here) are polarized. In 59 of those 99 chambers, the parties are getting more distant from each other. In 16 of them, the parties are actually depolarizing or getting closer. Finally, in 24 chambers, the parties are roughly stable in relation to each other.

However, in most states, unlike in the US Congress, the upper (Senate) chamber is typically more polarized than the lower (House or Assembly) chamber. On the other hand, the lower chamber is polarizing faster in more states than the upper chamber. It is not yet clear why these differences should exist.

The top 10 fastest polarizing chambers, in order, are the Idaho Senate and House, the Missouri Senate, the Arizona Senate, the Hawaii Senate, the Colorado Senate, the Tennessee House, the Nevada Senate, the Maryland Senate, and Mississippi Senate.

At the same time, California retains its title as the most polarized state legislature in the country. It has even managed to move up a couple of notches in the past 15 years. 

Another notable state is Nebraska, whose Unicam is amongst the fastest polarizers in the country, despite the fact that it is nonpartisan by law in the chambers and at the voting booth. Seth Masket and I show in a paper how parties in the state have overcome this powerful prohibition to work as cohesive, disciplined units–just like other states.

But which parties are driving this polarization at the state level? Are both parties at fault, or is one becoming more extreme compared to the other? That is, is state legislative polarization symmetric or asymmetric? I will tackle this subject in my next post.

Interestingly enough, a few state chambers are actually depolarizing: the parties are actually coming closer together. The fastest depolarizing state chambers, in order, are the Wyoming House, the Oregon Senate, the Alaska Senate, the Ohio Senate, and the North Carolina Senate. This is completely unheard of in recent years in Congress.

NB: The scales of the two plots aren’t comparable because they are taken from two separate data sources. However, in technical terms, they are both common space measures which disallow individual legislator ideological drift in order to facilitate an apples-to-apples comparison.