In a report released last Winter, National Journal determined "the overall level of congressional polarization last year (2010) was the highest... recorded... every Senate Democrat compiled a voting record more liberal than every Senate Republican—and every Senate Republican compiled a voting record more conservative than every Senate Democrat." In the House "five House Republicans in 2010 generated vote ratings more liberal than the most conservative House Democrat" and "four Democrats produced ratings more conservative than the most liberal Republican... Every other House Republican produced a more conservative vote rating than every other House Democrat... Of the nine members who were outliers last year, only one... is still in Congress."
How have times changed? "In 1982... fully 344 House members received... vote ratings between the most liberal Republican and the most conservative Democrat." As for the Senate, " In... 1982... 36 Senate Democrats compiled records at least as conservative as the most liberal Republican... 24 Senate Republicans compiled voting records at least as liberal as the most conservative Democrat."
Put simply - Congress has no political center. This absence of a center makes compromise a near impossibility. That would not be a problem if one party clearly dominated in an era of unified government, but the present era is marked by a high level of party competition, tenuous holds on power, and divided government. The result? Gridlock.
Noted Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein summarized it like this "close partisan margins, which gave rise to high-stakes legislative politics and sharply reduced incentives for lawmakers to work across party lines to solve problems."
So what has caused the polarization? This is actually a point of much contention. Scholars like Alan Abramowitz argue the polarization in Congress is reflective of an increasingly polarized public. Others, like Morris Fiorina contend the polarization is elite-driven. As argued in prior posts, I clearly agree with the Fiorina camp.
So if not reflective of a polarized public, what is driving the polarization. There is likely no one explanation, but rather a combination of factors. I put my money of the unholy trinity of partisan redistricting, closed nominating primaries, and the cost of campaigns.
Gerrymandering is not new (the terms dates to the early 1800s), but technological advances and high levels of political competition have elevated it to new levels. Some scholars argue gerrymandering cannot explain the polarization in House, because the Senate is polarized as well and polarization is evident in state legislatures and county councils. These scholars often fail to consider the prior elective experience of U.S. Senators. In the current Congress (and it's not an outlier) roughly two-thirds of the Senate held prior elective office in a seat subject to partisan redistricting - ranging from a U.S. House seat to a state legislative seat. And state legislative districts are often more gerrymandered than Congressional districts - one need look no farther than Maryland's state legislative districts.
In a study by Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal the authors concede that it is nearly impossible for a moderate to win in the nation's currently manipulated Congressional districts, but they see little evidence to support gerrymandering as the cause. They contend it's difficult to gerrymander many states due to size and population and many have few districts, but this also ignores the impact of gerrymandered state legislative districts and the prior elective experience of U.S. House members. McCarty et al. determined as well that within the same district Democratic and Republican representatives compile distinctly divergent records. This of course can only be studied in districts that are competitive and where candidates from either party can win. Most districts in the U.S. are safe and the out-party has no hope of winning.
The authors note "Republicans are more likely to represent conservative districts, and Democrats are more likely to represent liberal ones" and concede "such an effect is consistent with the gerrymandering hypothesis,
but it is also consistent with a general geographic polarization of voters along ideological and partisan lines." Finally, they determined ideological sorting of candidates began in the 1980s, but this was before the upswing of polarization and before the decline in electoral competition in the House. There are problems with these conclusions as well.
As will be discussed later, the rise in the use of primary elections to select nominees began in the early 1970s and had become the norm by the 1980s. Most primary elections are cosed - meaning only Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries and only Republicans in a Republican primary. I dispute as well the contention that 1980s were not an era of increased competition in the House. In the election of 1980, Republicans won 34 seats and completely recovered from the electoral devastation of Watergate. At 192 seats, the GOP saw a path back to a majority. With a high number of conservative southern Democrats at times the GOP seemed to have a working control of the agenda in the early years of the Reagan presidency. Republicans suffered a setback in 1982, but the era of Democratic dominance was clearly over.
Following a series of party reforms in the late 1960s primary elections became the typical approach to selecting candidates for general election contests by the end of the 1970s. In an open primary voters are allowed to vote outside of their declared political party. This allows independents and moderates to have more of a say in government and in their elected officials. However, most states have closed primaries, where only partisans can participate. The result being a system where very few people determine the candidates on the general election ballot and those candidates reflect the preference of dedicated partisan - this means liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans. As such, even in a competitive district the eventual winner is likely to be a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican (explaining one the findings by McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal).
Karen Kaufmann, James Gimpel, and Adam Hoffman studied the issue of open primaries and determined they attract more demographically representative voters; attract more centrist voters; and produce more moderate nominees than closed primaries.
As noted earlier, most Congressional districts are not competitive - somewhere in the neighborhood of 360 seats. In these seats, a Representative faces little threat from the opposing party in a general election. The greater threat comes from within the party in a primary election. This means Representatives must work to ensure support among their party's base voters (again liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans). As the chart below Demonstrates, partisan loyalty increases and increased significantly the safer the Congressional district. If primaries were open to all voters, regardless of party, the pressure would be quite different. Even if the Congressional districts were safe, base voters would not be selecting the candidates and the candidates would need to appeal to a broader swath of the electorate to secure a nomination. Of course the power of incumbency and safe seats make it quite difficult to challenge a sitting Representative - challenging and expensive.
|Relationship between Partisan Loyalty and District Safety |
(Source: National Journal - Pulling Apart)
The Money Game
According to OpenSecrets.org, the average House incumbent raised $1.5 million for their reelection campaign in 2010. The average challenger raised $265,000. The tremendous expense of House elections puts pressure on incumbents to raise money - just over $2,000 each day they are in office. Those voters with deeply held beliefs are the ones most likely to donate money. As demonstrated in a prior post, few folks make political contribution and those that do are far more ideologically polarized than those who do not.
Joseph Bafumi and Michael Herron have shown that members of Congress are not only more partisan than the median voter in their respective states, they are more partisan than their fellow partisan voters. Democrats in Congress are to the left of the median Democratic voter and Republicans to the right of the median Republican voter. The exception being campaign donors - elected officials are quite ideologically aligned with the folks who write the checks.
In “The Price of Leadership: Campaign Money and the Polarization of Congressional Parties,” Eric Heberlig, Marc Hetherington, and Bruce Larson determine the parties are driven by the need for money and support is given to candidates or incumbents who can raise it. The authors conclude, "a plausible new route into party leadership is by demonstrating fundraising capacity for the benefit of the party” and this has “changed the ideological composition of leadership." Once, parties sought to nominate candidates capable of building a coalition or managing legislation, but today fundraising has become the critical deciding factor.
The Unholy Trinity
Taken collectively, the unholy trinity of partisan redistricting, closed primaries, and the money chase offer a plausible explanation for our present levels polarization and dysfunction. Reforms aimed at fixing any one of the three would likely have little effect - rather all must be addressed. Legislation is pending in Congress that would require all states to adopt non-partisan redistricting reform, but such legislation has been introduced before and has been ignored. Seven states have adopted non-partisan, or bipartisan redistricting reforms - but these states hold only 88 of 435 seats. In most states, the parties are simply unwilling to surrender the power to gerrymander.
Roughly 28 states have closed or semi-closed primaries or closed caucuses. The structure and rules for primary elections are left up to the states and are often determined by the parties as independent entities. In states where citizens have pushed for open primaries, the parties have fought to maintain control over the candidate nomination process.
Public financing of presidential elections has been in place since the 1970s, but no such system exists for Congress. Though the Supreme Court has ruled you cannot place limits on private campaign spending, it is lawful to put limits on spending if an individual accepts public funding. Proposals for public funding of Congressional elections have been introduced in nearly every Congress since the early 1970s - but to no avail. Public financing would immediately remove a tremendous advantage enjoyed by incumbents and they do not appear eager to let that advantage go. Kenneth R. Mayer, Timothy Werner, and Amanda Williams studied state legislative elections in five states that offer public financing and determined competition generally increased after public financing was enacted, both in terms of the number of incumbents facing challengers, and the number of “competitive” races.
Competitive races, open primaries, and competition for the median voter instead of the partisan campaign donor. Congressional districts where voters pick their representative instead of incumbent representatives picking their voters. Collectively these changes offer the hope of decreased polarization in Congress and the return to a functioning government. But the folks who would need to change the rules of the game are the same folks who know how to play the game as it is currently structured. There is little indication that they are willing to rewrite those rules and invite a new group of players. So for now, let the dysfunction resume.
Shelby Perkins, a Political Science and Spanish major at St. Mary's College of Maryland contributed significantly to this post.