State political parties grow farther apart, with California leading the way

Like two alley cats backing away from each other, the Democratic and Republican parties in most states have become more polarized over the past two decades, making it harder to pass legislation with the support of both liberals and conservatives. And California — which has adopted such election reforms as term limits, nonpartisan primaries, and an independent redistricting commission designed to reduce gerrymandering — is easily the most partisan state in the U.S., according to two political scientists.

Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty calculated polarization (defined as “the average ideological distance between the median Democrat and Republican in the state legislature”) in all 50 states from 1996 to 2013, a period that coincides with growing distance between the two parties at the national level. Polarization may have something to do with a lack of civility (though one less-than-vigorous study pegged Washington as the state with the least cursing, and it’s the fifth most polarized state in the U.S.). The trend definitely has something to do with voters showing more party discipline, despite telling pollsters that they’re independent. Ticket-splitting is down as the parties nominate fewer DINOs (Democrats In Name Only) and RINOs (not to be confused with the poor creature in the photo above), known to a previous generation as boll weevils and gypsy moths.

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McCarty, among the contributors to a Monkey Cage series on political polarization running this week, expands on the phenomenon:

Conservative voters are much more likely to identify as Republican and liberals as Democrats than two generations ago. Moreover, voters’ partisanship increasingly predicts their positions on issues. Voters are primarily changing their issue positions to match the partisanship rather than switching parties.

The idea of voters obeying invisible party whips (House of Cards’ Frank Underwood could only dream of such power) got some credence in a Pew Research Center poll that found Republicans more supportive of the government tracking citizens’ phone records under President George W. Bush and Democrats more supportive of the same policy under President Barack Obama. In other words, American voters are not the innocent victims of crazed partisans in D.C.

Getting back to state-level politics, Shor and McCarty’s findings raise the question of why California is such an outlier, even if partisanship is on the rise everywhere. (See the complete rankings in the chart below.) In his own contribution to the Monkey Cage series, Shor notes that Republican legislators in California are simply irrelevant to the legislative process: “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.” However, Rhode Island is even more lopsided (only 11 out of 113 legislators are Republican) and it’s the least polarized state by Shor and McCarty’s reckoning.

Political corruption doesn’t explain California. By one measure (per-capita convictions of public officials), the state is at the low end of the sleaze scale. California is among both the 15 cleanest and 15 most polarized states (the others being Colorado, Washington, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Minnesota, and Texas), while Louisiana is one of the least polarized and most corrupt states. This makes sense. Backroom deals are traditionally a good way to get votes from the opposition party, even if they don’t actually involve corruption. I imagine it’s a lot easier to tell your party whip that you’re defecting on a vote because the other side promised a new highway in your district than to say you’re crossing him because you think it’s the right thing to do.

The high cost of campaigning in California might be a factor, since it can be easier to attract out-of-state contributions as a diehard liberal or conservative, or someone willing committed to voting with the Sierra Club or the NRA. But there are some small, relatively inexpensive states on the highly polarized end of the scale, including New Hampshire — which has the biggest legislature in the country (400 members in the House of Representatives!), while California’s is relatively small (80 members in the lower chamber).

But besides polarization, there is another way in which California is an outlier: ballot questions. California public policy is driven by citizen referenda to an extent not seen anywhere else. Voters there have capped property taxes, imposed term limits on legislators, required state budgets and tax increases to pass the legislature with a 2/3rds vote, and earmarked billions of dollars for education and other purposes. In November 2012, California voters had to decide 30 questions, far ahead of second-place Florida (11 questions). Among the five most polarized states, Michigan, New Mexico, and Washington also have a high number of ballot initiatives. Perhaps legislators have less of an incentive to compromise with members of the opposite party if they think voters are going to undo their work anyway.

Another data point: Four of the five most polarized states allow voters to recall elected officials (California, Michigan, Washington, and Colorado, where two state senators were removed from office last year in expensive recall elections after supporting gun control legislation). The threat of losing one’s seat in the middle of a term might also make a lawmaker antsy about casting a vote that offends the partisans who fund campaigns.

Photo of white rhino from Wikimedia Commons. Chart from The Monkey Cage blog.

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