Lessig, Klein, and the Economist on Polarization, Spending, and Gerrymandering

Larry Lessig, Ezra Klein, and an anonymous Economist writer have been debating the relative importance of campaign spending and gerrymandering on partisan polarization.   Unfortunately, the exchange is fairly heavy on conjecture and lighter on evidence.  Because these are topics on which I have written a bit, I thought I might provide a few pieces of the missing data.

  • Gerrymandering is not an important cause of polarization

The most important piece of evidence for this claim is that polarization in the United States Senate follows a very similar trajectory with polarization in the House, and the Senate has not been subject to gerrymandering since the Dakotas were split in the 1890s.  While some have suggested that gerrymandering-induced House polarization generated Senate polarization, the evidence is weak that House polarization causes Senate polarization or that gerrymandering has polarized the House.

I have written extensively on that last point.  The gist of the argument against gerrymandering is that polarization in its modern incarnation is primarily a result of the difference in the way Democrats and Republicans represent otherwise similar districts.  I call this the divergence effect.  For example, the gap between Democrats and Republicans who represent 50-50 partisan districts has grown. Polarization is not the result, as the gerrymandering hypothesis would have it, of Democrats representing increasingly liberal districts and Republicans representing conservative districts.  I call such an effect sorting.  The figures below drawn from my published work illustrate this feature.  The figures plot a common measure of congressional ideology (the DW-NOMINATE score) against the district vote for the Republican presidential candidate (a commonly used proxy for district partisanship).  As one can see, the main difference between the parties in the DW-NOMINATE scale is the gap between the parties at each value of the presidential vote (the distance between the smoothing lines).  This gap reflects divergence. Second, note that between 1970s and the 2000s, the divergence between the two lines has grown markedly.   The sorting effect is not as strong.  There has been an increase in Democrats representing very liberal districts, but this has been primarily confined to urban and majority-minority districts – those that are least susceptible to the partisan gerrymandering that is alleged to have caused polarization.   As Boris Shor and I have recently documented, divergence is a much more important source of polarization than is sorting within state legislatures as well.

More directly, Keith Poole, Howard Rosenthal, and I conducted a very large number of simulations where we constructed congressional districts under neutral districting procedures and predicted the level of polarization for each simulation.  These simulations produce polarization as larger or larger than that we observe in the real data without recourse to gerrymandering.  Once one accounts for the divergence effect and inter-state differences, there is almost nothing left to explain.

  • The association between electoral security and extremism in Congress is surprisingly weak

This fact is also consistent with the figure from 2004 above.  Note that the estimated smoothing lines are reasonably flat.  So on average Republicans from districts with a 50% Bush vote are only slightly more moderate that those with a 70% Bush vote.  Yes, Democrats representing districts with 20% Bush vote are considerably more liberal than those with 50%, but again, the 20% districts are primarily minority districts.    A more reasonable comparison is 30% versus 50% districts where the average difference is quite small.  In sum, the effects of the competitiveness or the partisan composition on a member’s ideological position pale in comparison to the effect of the member’s party.

While these data show that over all extremists are only slight beneficiaries of safer, more partisan seats, Tom Brunell and Justin Buchler provide evidence for a stronger claim that members from competitive seats do not pursue positions closer to those of their constituents than do those from less competitive seats.

  • Extreme Incumbents Do Not Raise More Money from Individuals or Groups

While the patterns may have changed slightly over the past couple of cycles, my work with Poole and Rosenthal did not uncover any substantial relationship between extremity and campaign fundraising.  The figures below are from 2002 and appear in our book.  The data clearly show that members with extreme DW-NOMINATE scores suffer a slight penalty in fundraising.  Even if there is now a stronger correlation between fundraising and extremism, I note simply that Congress was plenty polarized by 2002 without fundraising being an important source of it.  Moreover, in a recent paper, Bertram Johnson (cited by Lessig in Republic, Lost) does find that extreme candidates receive a greater proportion of their funds from individuals and from small donors.  But this paper reconfirms our finding that extremism does not raise the absolute level of contributions from individuals over all.  (And this suggests further evidence that large individual contributors and interest groups appear to shun the extremists.)

Summary: Gerrymandering, polarization, and the excesses of the campaign finance systems are clearly areas of concern for reformers.  But not all bad things gotogether.

(Thanks to Steve Rogers for helping me pull this post together)

9 Responses to Lessig, Klein, and the Economist on Polarization, Spending, and Gerrymandering

  1. Tracy Lightcap March 13, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    I don’t read this stuff for a living so there is probably an answer to this query already.

    Ok, there doesn’t seem to be much relationship of polarization from gerrymandering. But is there no relationship between polarization in the House and in the Senate? I can think of one plausible hypothesis right off the top of my head: there are more Senators today who are former House members. They came from a body that polarized earlier and they kept the habit when they moved up. The poster child for this would be, of course, Trent Lott. When he moved to the Senate he quickly pushed Jim Jeffords to the wall and lost control of the body for the Pubs when he went independent.

    Well, anecdotes aren’t evidence and, like I say, this has probably already been answered. I’d like to know that answer, however.

  2. Padraic March 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm #

    Why do people keep saying Economist bloggers are anonymous? Each post shows the initials and city of the writer. That post was by Will Wilkinson.

    • Sebastian March 13, 2012 at 2:10 pm #

      The Economist went from anonymous blog posts to semi-anonymous ones – now you have to really know their staff to be able to identify that G.I. is Greg Ips, R.A .is Ryan Avent, and W.W. is Will Wilkinson etc.
      I think it’s a silly compromise by The Economist and I don’t think you can expect every reader to keep track of initials and their meaning. Now that they have some rather opinionated bloggers like Will and (for quite some time now) Ryan, they should just cop to it and have them post under their name like everyone else does.

  3. Dana Houle March 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    >There has been an increase in Democrats representing very liberal districts, but this has been primarily confined to urban and majority-minority districts – those that are least susceptible to the partisan gerrymandering that is alleged to have caused polarization. <

    Outside of NYC, Los Angeles and a few other places, that's exactly the opposite of the reality about gerrymandering. The average congressional district will be about 715,000 people. (Only 17 cities are larger than that, and only 6 have at least twice that population. Nine of those 17 cities are in Texas and California.) Large cities are almost all heavily Democratic. The gerrymandering issue is whether to pack as many of the Democrats in those urban areas in to as few districts as possible (for an example of this look at the new Michigan map, with Detroit packed in to two districts that connect to almost all of the heavily African-American suburbs). This obviously favors the Republicans, who drew that map. For the opposite, with a city parceled out to a large number of districts, making the Democratic votes more efficiently dispersed through more CD's, look at the Illinois map, where Chicago–with population less than four CD's–is divided in to seven districts, with some extending far out of the city in to rural (and Republican) areas. It's true it's hard to gerrymander NYC to create more Democratic districts (although the Grimm and King districts could probably be made far more Democratic). But in every other city, gerrymandering can create one or two heavily Democratic seats, or a greater number of seats that are still Democratic or competitive but not 65% or higher Democratic performance.

    I also think you're also looking at the wrong correlation with being extreme and raising money. It's not that extreme members are penalized financially for being extreme, it's that extreme members tend not to represent competitive districts. They aren't in battleground districts, so institutional donors and those who try to maximize their donations for electoral (vs policy) effect don't give to those members unless they're facing a stiff primary (which happens very infrequently). A great fundraiser in a safe district, unless she is chair of an important committee or subcommittee, will usually raise less money than a mediocre fundraiser in a competitive district. Thus, fundraising is a function of the member, but it's also a function of the district.

    • Nolan March 13, 2012 at 7:52 pm #

      I may have been a little quick in dismissing the role of gerrymandering in the heavily Democratic districts. But the simulations reported in McCarty, Poole and Rosenthal 2009 deal explicitly with the issues you raise.

      Your point about extremists raising less money because there are safe seems to neglect my second bullet point. There are plenty of extreme members in less than safe districts.

      • Dana Houle March 13, 2012 at 11:44 pm #

        But are the extremists in less than safe districts raising the same paltry amounts as extremists in safe districts?

        And are you compensating for committee assignments? Members on the fundraising committees (E&C, Approps, Rules, Ways and Means, Armed Services, Transportation, Ag and Financial Services) raise more money than members on the other committees. Also, people at the extremes of their caucuses make up a large share of the Judiciary committee, and that’s not a big fundraising committee.

  4. Dana Houle March 13, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    By the way, I think the biggest factor with partisan polarization in Congress is that it’s no longer dominated by Democrats:

  5. Paul Gronke March 13, 2012 at 5:35 pm #


    The other cite I’d add is Bafumi and Herron’s recent piece on “Leapfrog Representation” (American Political Science Review (2010), 104 : pp 519-542) that shows that districts are increasingly swapping between extreme Dems and extreme Reps. This runs contrary to a gerrymander-caused polarization hypothesis and supports your alternative.

    • Nolan March 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

      Paul: Thanks for pointing out that piece. That zig-zag dynamic is really important. It underscores that polarization is not not about partisan safe seats.