Most people don’t know who their state legislators are, much less what they are up to. So how do voters hold them accountable to public views? Steven Rogers finds that voters don’t know enough about state politicians and most legislators are not facing competitive elections. Electoral mechanisms are not enough to keep them from diverging from the people they represent. But Chris Warshaw finds that state policy has grown more representative of state publics and more responsive to changes in opinion, only partly because elections change who is in power. State officials also follow public opinion in between elections and out of fear of electoral threat.
Matt Grossmann: Can state politicians be held accountable to the public, this week on The Science of Politics. For The Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Despite nationalized politics and media, a lot of policy is still made in state legislatures. Elections may not provide much of a mechanism for keeping state politicians in line with voters’ views. After all, most people don’t know what their state leaders are up to, and most of their elections are not competitive. Does that leave them free to pursue extreme and unrepresented goals? If not, what else keeps them accountable?
This week, I talked to Steven Rogers of St. Louis University about his new Chicago book, Accountability in State Legislatures. He finds that voters don’t know enough about state politicians to hold them accountable, in part due to the decline of state media, and electoral mechanisms are not enough to keep them from diverging from the people they represent.
But I also talked to Chris Warshaw of George Washington University about his Chicago book with Devin Caughey, Dynamic Democracy. He finds that state policy has grown more representative of state publics and more responsive to changes in opinion only partly because elections change who’s in power. State officials also follow public opinion in between elections and out of fear of electoral threat.
This episode will let you experience the real renaissance of state politics research where we talk comprehensively about the state of American democracy with new data and perspective. First, the bad news from Rogers.
What were the main findings and takeaways from Accountability in State Legislatures?
The main findings and takeaways from Accountability in State Legislatures is that legislators probably do not have much electoral incentive to act in their constituents’ interest. Here Accountability in State Legislatures doesn’t find that there’s no accountability, but it finds that there’s just not very much of it. Then here the story behind this is we can probably easily think, well, maybe voters don’t know all that much about the state legislature. But here, a story of it that it’s both elites and voters responsible for this lack of accountability.
Some of the key findings within it are like in state legislative elections in the general elections, when you look at single-member districts over the last 20 years, over a third of state legislators win reelection without either a primary or general election challenger. Otherwise stated, what this is saying is that one third of state legislators just win reelection just by signing up. Here, it’s hard to have accountability or a voter to hold a state legislator accountable if they have no one else to vote for. Here in the book I try to illustrate, not only with challengers, but also with the media and then how districts are drawn, there’s a lot of things in the system that are stacking the deck against accountability.
Then additionally, there is some responsibility on the voter side in which most voters don’t know who their state legislator is, yet on what they’re doing from day to day. Then here to hold a state legislator accountable, you may think that a voter’s going to probably need to know did my legislator act in my interest, did they do a good job, did they even do constituency service for me? But I generally find that they don’t really know that much about what their state legislators have done.
Here, for example, fundamentally only about 11% of voters can recall the name of their state representative. Then additionally, when I ask in an open-ended question on a survey, “Can you tell me anything that your state legislator has done,” 75% responded no or don’t know. That leaves 25%. But then actually, in my own concession, I don’t know even what they told me was true. Then in this, they may be often confusing who their federal legislators are, who their state legislators.
Overall, the punchline of the book is that we think that these elections are supposed to be incentivizing say state legislators to act in our interest, but in terms of how much they’re held accountable or how much electoral incentive legislators have, it ain’t all that much.
Matt Grossmann: That is one of the striking findings is how little voters know about state legislators and state legislatures. What do they know and why don’t they know more? Is it a consequence of declining media coverage or is there some other source?
Steven Rogers: Yeah, here I do think you’re right on track on that in terms of state voters don’t know that much about their state legislature or their state government in general. I would attribute a lot of this to the media, but it also can be just general lack of interest. Here, just go through the first part in terms of what voters know about their state legislature. Some statistics I just said in which only 11% of voters can recall their state legislator’s name. Oftentimes, when they’re asked to recall their state legislator’s name, I found they confused it for say their US House rep. This happened about 13% of the time. A different survey where I only look at Tennessee voters, Vanderbilt University and The Center for Democratic Institutions very generously let me put some questions on their poll, only 22% of Tennessee voters could identify their state legislator’s name from a list.
Then here in this list, what I did is I put the names of four different state legislators. One of them was their own state legislator. Then another was just a name of a political scientist, like Donald Stokes. Then here, in terms of a guy choosing this, only 22% could identify their state legislator’s name. This was 16% fewer than could identify their US House member’s name.
There is this difference between say federal and state level knowledge. Expanding on this difference, this is a lesson in the book but in a piece that’s coming out in State Politics & Policy Quarterly, I also asked, “What do you know about say the differences between federal and state government?” Then here, for example, fewer than 60% of Americans knew if their state had background checks for guns, this survey was in 2018, whether they had legalized abortion or higher tax rates thing than they did previously. Additionally, they don’t really know all that much about their governor’s powers. In this, people didn’t know their governor could issue an executive order or pardons. Meanwhile, they knew that the president could do this. There is a lack of knowledge within state politics or people’s awareness.
What’s something that’s troublesome is that state legislators themselves seem to know this. Here in very nice studies that have been done by Nick Carnes, David Brockman, Chris Skovron, and Melody Crowder-Meyer, they had the National Candidate Study. In here, what they did is they asked state legislative candidates and state legislators different questions. When asking this, only 49% of state legislators thought voters knew which party controlled their state Senate. Here I find that generally about 60% of voters know which party controls their state Senate or state House. But here about half of state legislators seem to be cognizant that voters don’t know all that much about even who controls the legislature.
Maybe even more troublesome, in the same survey, Carnes and others found only 15% of state legislators thought voters knew who to blame for policies they did not like. Here, 85%, the state legislature is saying 85% of voters just don’t know who to blame. This is troubling because we want legislators to maybe be scared, but a legislator’s not going to be scared if voters don’t know all that much when they realize they don’t know all that much.
The second part in which it’s like, why are we here? Then here, I would say first there is a problem in terms of media coverage. Since the turn of the century, going back to 2000, there’s been a decline of over a third fewer state House reporters covering state government. Right now, for example, there’s more reporters that are credentialed to cover a single Super Bowl than necessarily all state governments combined. Here, I love football. I have four fantasy football teams. I am into it sort of thing. I’m very sad that Nick Chubb got hurt this week. But in this, I’m really into football, but here voters, themselves, aren’t as into say state legislatures as well.
When I even look at what, in the book I conduct this analysis, or I just look at Google trends in which Google very nicely lets you search for or identify how much are people searching for different things. Then here I find that voters overwhelmingly search for things about federal politics. They, at times, search a little bit more for gubernatorial politics. Particularly we saw this around the pandemic, there was a healthy spike in the amount of people Googling their governor, but they’re not Googling about their state legislator. This is a combined aspect in which there’s less media coverage of state legislatures and in general voters that just aren’t all that interested.
Matt Grossmann: The main mechanism for accountability is supposed to be elections. Give us the lay of the land for how many state legislators get competition at all in their primary and general election, and then how many are actually threatened or lose those elections?
Steven Rogers: Then here, this is a really important part of the story because, again, voters cannot necessarily vote a state legislator out of office if they have no one else to vote for. Even if the state legislator did a horrible job, they can win reelection if no one else is running against them. Here what I’m just going to be looking at is single-member districts from 2001 to 2020, that’s where these statistics are going to be coming from. Then here, about 83% of state legislators did not face a primary challenger. Then 45% did not face a general election challenger. Then if I take these two statistics and combine them a little bit, together about 35% of state legislators did not face a challenger in either the primary or general election.
When we’re thinking about accountability, pretty much we’re only thinking about two thirds of races to start. We have a third of the races off the table. By comparison, about 90% of US House incumbents face at least a major party challenger. There’s a pretty healthy gap between the state of federal and state levels. In this, in terms of how much these legislators actually lose, typically over this 20-year period, only about 2% of state legislators lose their primary election. Then here it’s going to range between say 6% to 10% of state legislative incumbents will lose their general election. Overall, there is probably a little bit less turnover in these state legislators, but I think the real punchline is that there’s this lack of competition in which state legislators can just win reelection without much effort or any competition.
In the book, for example, I have an example of a state legislator from Louisiana who went pretty much about say 15 to 16 years without facing either a primary or a general election challenger. He then decided to resign early so his son could run for the seat. His son then lost the special election. Then in the general election, his other son lost the general election. This one legislator’s family sort of thing, had the seat forever just because they, well not just because I can say, but largely because they didn’t have any challengers. But then once there was a little competition, they threw the family out.
Matt Grossmann: You also look at ideology. You find that voters in general elections do have a slight punishment for ideological extremists, but that doesn’t really add up to actually threatening those extremists because they, of course, have to compete in primary elections as well as general. Is it that primary voters favor extremists or just that they make their way through the primary and then aren’t threatened in the general?
Steven Rogers: Here, I think it is both in which the primary voters … In my analysis, I find that when a legislator has more extreme ideology, and in this I’m measuring this by their say roll call ideal point. They have a higher ideal point if they’re a Republican, a lower ideal point if they’re a Democrat. If they have a more extreme ideology or if they’re more loyal to their party, they vote more often with their party, then both Democrats and Republicans in the primary election are expected to do better. Here there is an electoral incentive, at least from the data that I have, for legislators to provide this extreme representation.
However, I do find also, optimistically, that legislators who do provide say worse representation or this more extreme representation, do worse in the general election. There is, as we can think theoretically, oh, I want to cater to the extreme voters in the primary and the more moderate voters in the general. That seems to be occurring.
But in this, one of the things that is a problem in state legislatures that we haven’t talked about yet is that districts are becoming more and more extreme. Here, just for example, if we just do a little bit going back in the last 20 years, if I were to define say a close district as a district where the incumbent party’s presidential vote was between 45% and 55%, I’m going to say that’s a more competitive district, back in 2000, there were about 25% of state legislative districts met these criteria. Now in 2022-2023, only about 15% do. And so then here there’s been a growth in these more partisan districts on both sides of the aisle. And so then here with these more partisan districts, that can make the primary a little bit more important for some of these legislators. And so then legislators in these more partisan districts, particularly districts… The analysis that I conduct is I define a partisan district as one where it’s like 60% of the partisan vote or more. Then I find that legislators are going to get this reward even more for being extreme than necessarily being punished in the general election. So what I do is I trace a legislator from when they run for reelection, and then my final outcome variable is going to be do they return to office? And so in that pathway, what it’s doing is it’s kind of encompassing both the outcome of the primary election and the outcome of the general election.
And then what I find is that in these districts that are more partisan, legislators do have a little bit more incentive to be extreme. Meanwhile, in the more moderate district, 60% or less, they do have a little bit more incentive to be moderate, which theoretically matches up with what we’d probably think. If I’m in a partisan district, I’m probably be guaranteed my general election outcome. And so let’s cater to the more extreme, but this is troublesome because we have increasing polarization within state legislatures. And then in this, I can’t necessarily go from A to B to C to link all this, but what I do find is that in some of these districts, which is a lot of the districts now it’s about like 67% of the districts, these more extreme districts, they have an incentive to be extreme.
Matt Grossmann: So you have some evidence that these state legislative elections are becoming more nationalized and that there’s less of a local incumbency effect compared to a national partisan effect. But you also have this graph that is actually the first graph I show to our people in our candidate training program, which who might want to run for state legislature, which shows the very long history of the similarity in the national congressional vote and the national state legislative votes, which suggests that maybe this is actually a pretty long-term pattern that state legislative elections are partisan elections that people are voting kind of on a national partisan basis. So how much of it is how it’s always been and how much of it has changed?
Steven Rogers: So I love that graph as well. And so to describe the graph, I’m kind of looking at the change in seats for the Democratic Party in US House and State House elections over time. And then the correlation, at least to me, is very striking. It’s 0.96. And so here what we’re basically having is that we see the same things at the national level as we do to state level. And then here, I would say in my data, so I took a seat change over time, but in terms of accountability and presidential approval and different national measures, I can only really go back to the 1940s sort of thing. So I can’t say back in the times of the 1800s, is this also happening? We don’t have survey data from there, but if someone knows about it on this podcast at listener, send it my way. I’d love it.
But here I do think there’s kind of an aspect to it, that this is the way it’s always kind of been. So for example, this isn’t in the book, but in other work that I have, I actually look at New Jersey elections over time. And then in this analysis I kind of reading about the history. So it was in the 1940s that New Jersey switched their state elections to be in the off year. So for less familiar readers, or not readers. Listeners, most state legislative elections occur at the same time as US House election in even numbered years. But in states like New Jersey and Virginia, they’re in off election years. And then here at the time when he was advocating for off election years in New Jersey, the Governor Alfred Driscoll said, “The election for governor and assemblymen should not coincide with a presidential election. The importance of a [inaudible 00:18:10] election merits an election that will not be overshadowed by a national contest for the presidency.”
And so here, this is coming from the Constitutional Convention of 1947 in New Jersey, but in this, I’m going back now almost 70 years or more than 70 years, where they’re recognizing this. We have these states elections that are kind of being overshadowed by the national context. And so I find this largely to be the case when I look at, say, changes in the economy and then seat changes over time. And so this seems to be the norm, but there has been a little bit of variation over time, at least in terms of nationalization. And then here I do recommend reading Dan Hopkins very appropriately titled book, The Increasingly United States, because this book kind of goes a little lot more into maybe different reasons for why we have this nationalization.
But one reason I do think is that we do have a changing media environment. And so for example, when Madison and Hamilton were creating a lot of these, like the system of federalism, they were not expecting that, oh, a little piece of news or a tweet can go all across the world almost instantaneously. Instead its got to be filtered through newspapers very slowly. And they thought, oh, these local newspapers, we’ll have more attachment to our local politics a little bit more.
But as media and just technology has evolved, the nation itself has become more nationalized. And so I’ve already kind of mentioned how there’s been fewer State House reporters, but we also can think about work in terms of there’s media companies that are consolidating sort of thing. And so if we think about, say, [inaudible 00:19:49] news and stuff like that, in which it’s like, well, they’re going to need news stories that can cover multiple markets. And then here it’s like, well, it’s cheaper to just do one story on more national politics than necessarily do a story about every local issue. And so this is something I do think is concerning, like the decline of State House reporters, fewer newspapers. And so I think at least that’s one reason why it may be a little bit more intensely nationalized now than it’s been in the past.
Matt Grossmann: Since we are coming up on a few elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and Louisiana, Mississippi, what is the evidence on differences in the off-year? I know they’re often looked at as predictive of the next election. Are they more separated from national partisan factors?
Steven Rogers: Again, this part’s not in the book, but it’s in another paper that I have. And then here, one thing that I did do, so in terms of the answer, I think they may be slightly more separated but not extremely so. And so here, if I conduct many of the analysis that I look at, like say with on-year states, the patterns are very similar. And then referencing, for example, that New Jersey example. And so here I really want to thank the people at the Eagleton Poll at Rutgers University because they have been polling on state politics going back to the 1970s. And so here one thing that they’ve done, it’s not in every survey in every election year, but what they did is they did poll about say presidential approval, gubernatorial approval, and state legislative approval. And then they also asked voters their vote choice in these elections.
And so then here what I’m able to do is I’m able to look at survey data going back over time where our expectation’s going to be that if a voter becomes more approving of their legislature, they would then vote for the party that’s kind of in control of that legislature. And occasionally I do find that, but then what I consistently find returning this topic of nationalization is that the best predictor after someone’s party ID is going to be their approval of the president. And so then presidential approval, at least in these surveys going back to the 1970s, which is the oldest survey data I can find that has State House vote choice along with different approval measures, I do find that no, national politics is largely dominating state legislative elections. Here more recently, we kind of see that there’s a decent amount of competition in Virginia and New Jersey, and there’s a lot of it attention there, but overall the pattern is relatively the same.
So as you know, I’m also interviewing Chris Warsaw, and they have a different set of findings and a different research method than you do, but in some ways it is more optimistic. They say that state legislatures are able to follow public opinion in part due to elections and in part due to just directly taking on public opinion. And I guess one way of putting it is that we used to have more states that were kind of out of step with their public, and now most conservative public are governed by conservative legislatures and vice versa. And when there have been real moves, they’ve eventually, in public opinion, they’ve eventually been recognized or represented in state legislature. So how would you compare that set of findings to yours?
Steven Rogers: No. Yeah. So here first I encourage all listeners to go by Chris and Devin’s book. It is an excellent analysis of representation in the American states. It was a phenomenal data collection effort and methodologically extremely sound. And so I really encourage listeners to go purchase that book or check out the book from your library. And in here, so their book is titled Dynamic Democracy, and the central focus of that is on representation. And so here they do discuss elections, but here they really are illustrating as Matt you said that it’s like, no, look, policies are becoming more representative overtime. In contrast with my book is mainly focused on is this idea of accountability in which is our legislators being held accountable or responsible for the policies that they enact. And then in here I do touch on representation a little kind of showing a little at least some legislators are out step of their district.
And in here, Chris and Devin are finding that policy is generally in step with what the state wants, but there are still some policies that are out of step. And so then here, and hopefully I’m characterizing it correctly, is that Dynamic Democracy is largely going to make the argument that policy is responsive to public opinion, but it is a slow process. And so here they kind of find that there’s policies that may be incongruent, but over time they will become more congruent. And in this though, I would argue a little bit that the reason why they may be finding, say a little bit of congruence or not as much congruence as they want is that because legislators actually aren’t being held accountable. Now, why they do find the congruence that they do, I would probably respond saying it’s like, well, legislators very well may fear being held accountable in which there may be the threat of accountability.
But what accountability in state legislatures would argue is that that threat isn’t that real. And so we can kind of think about it maybe going outside of the world of politics. Many of us maybe drive our cars and we may kind of know where a speed trap is. And so in this, what we basically have is that it’s like, well, maybe I’m really running late for a meeting. I don’t encourage any listener to speed, but in this, you’re late for a meeting, you may go 10 to 15 over in order just to cut off a little bit of time if you know there’s not a speed trap.
But if there’s a speed trap or if there’s someone there to hold you accountable, whether you’re late to the meeting or not, you are probably going to be going a little bit slower. And so what my fear is a little bit is that as politics kind of become more nationalized and legislators are recognizing how nationalized politics are becoming, and as state legislators may realize for example what they do themselves doesn’t have that much implications for their own elections, they then may become more likely to produce unrepresented policies.
And this may be already the case, why we don’t see say as representative policies as we may want. And then here we may also think that, so for example, in their study of congruence, they find that policy match public opinion about 59% of the time. And then each decade, that congruence increased by about 3%. And then in that this is going to be a normative take. And I’ve talked to Chris and Devin about this. We’ve had an excellent authors meets critics panel together at APSA. And this is a question that we all struggled with in terms of what is enough? Is this enough representation? In my book, is this enough accountability? Because here we’re all doctors of political science, but I can’t tell you whether or not what’s 98.6 degrees in terms of a healthy amount of representation or a healthy amount of democracy. It’s going to be a little bit more normative.
And so from coming from Steve Rogers’ perspective, I think we’re falling a little bit short. Are we absolutely failing? No. Is there zero accountability in state legislatures? No. However, I do think that this is not probably what we normatively would want out of a more democratic system of government.
Matt Grossmann: Rogers is concerned about the state of democracy in the American states, but you can hear some openness to the more optimistic view that comes from Warsaw’s analysis. It turns out that if you’re not as beholden to elections as the key mechanism, you can find more responsiveness. Let’s now turn to Warsaw’s view.
So your recent book, Dynamic Democracy, takes a big-picture look at state policymaking and representation. What were the main findings and takeaways?
Chris Warshaw: I think some of the main findings and takeaways are that we find that over the long term state policy is responsive to shifts in public opinion. The public moves to the left, state policy will eventually move to the left, and if the public moves to the right, state policy will follow. But sometimes this takes a long time. What we find is that the policymaking process is only incrementally responsive to changes in public opinion. So it can take a while for public policy to catch up to what the public wants it to do.
And we found is that one explanation for that is just an extremely large status quo bias in politics. This will shift, if there’s a conservative policy, it takes a really long time for states to shift that to a liberal policy, and conversely if you start with a liberal one. And I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, but some of the reasons are that there’s only so many things that policymakers can do in any given legislative session or any given year. They also face a myriad of veto points along the way that make it hard to push policy changes through.
Matt Grossmann: So you also do a big picture look at public opinion in the United States across states, and I was struck that it’s been mostly national. You do show some regional differences, but overall it’s been bumpy on economic policy moving back and forth leftward and rightward, but we’ve had this big leftward shift on racial issues over decades and then a recent pretty big leftward shift on other social and cultural issues. So given this picture you’re painting of representation, there might be some people that would think, “Well, if economic policy is awash and these racial and cultural issues are moving leftward, shouldn’t this have been an era of Democratic dominance or of big gains by the party of the left?” So why not?
Chris Warshaw: I think the first thing I’d say is that by and large policymaking has shifted to the left in response, particularly on social issues, on gay rights and on LGBTQ+ rights more generally. The policymaking environment has really shifted quite substantially to the left over the last 20 years. I think the story is more mixed than other social issues, but even on other social issues, generally policies move to the left. And as far as the electoral process, I think that we don’t directly examine in the book why… I don’t think we directly examine this question in the book, but I think my two responses are that elections are a function of many things, and what we find in the book is that state elections are only, in a very tenuous way, responsive to changes in the ideology of the electorate.
And that’s partly because we think that state parties are shifting in response to changes in the electorate. So to the extent that voters shift to the left, both parties will generally shift to the left. Going back to your question, I think one of the reasons that Democrats haven’t seen larger gains because of the public shifting to the left on social issues, it’s because their platforms have shifted to the left with the public. So if Democrats still have the same platform they had 10 years ago, they may not have made the policymaking advances that they’ve made, but they probably would be more successful electorally. And I think to some extent that’s always a trade-off for parties.
Matt Grossmann: So you also find that policymaking has moved leftward over time, including on economic policies, but it’s also started to vary more across red and blue states. So one interpretation of that is just that red states are just moving slower in this leftward direction, but I think a lot of people see the current environment as maybe a point more of stasis, where maybe we had a leftward shift over time, but now we’re really getting states moving in opposite directions. How would you interpret that?
Chris Warshaw: I think we’re maybe seeing early hints of that, especially on abortion. I think that for most of the time period we looked at in our book, the overwhelming… I think what you’re describing was largely true, that the policymaking environment was shifting to the left, Democrats were advancing more… And not just Democrats, but states more generally were largely advancing more liberal policies. So conservative victories were largely stopping that shift to the left in their state. And you’d see when Republicans took control of the state, they’d stop these leftward shifts. I do think in recent years we’re seeing more rightward shifts as well, and that’s true on abortion, it’s true on gun control and gun rights. I think on economic issues it’s not quite as clear.
One thing I’ll say is that… Going back to our conversation about your first question about some of the overall findings of the book, and I think this ties into this question as well, the Medicaid expansion I think really highlights some of the findings in our book really well, which is that the Medicaid expansion was extremely controversial when it passed, and liberals thought it was terrible that only a handful of states adopted it initially. But over time what we’ve seen is that the Medicaid expansion has gotten more popular across the board, but actually particularly in red states, it’s gotten more popular. And over time, more and more states have adopted it, in some cases through the political process through the legislature, in other cases through the initiative process.
And I think that illustrates both that generally speaking of the policy environment is shifting to the left, that you have this big expansion of who’s on Medicaid, but it also really, really, I think… It’s a great example of policy being responsive to what the public wants. It doesn’t happen as fast as many advocates wanted it to happen, and I think that if your expectation is that in a democracy policy is going to instantly respond to public opinion, that’s not the way democracy… That’s not the way governments work. But over the long term government does tend to eventually do what people want it to do.
Matt Grossmann: So you find that states have become more representative of public opinion and still responsive to public opinion shifts, so of course we do know that some more conservative states were governed by Democrats and liberal governments and vice versa. So we’ve matched that process. But I was just visiting the University of Texas at Austin, which is a mostly blue audience in a red state, and they really felt that calling their state government representative was a stretch. So that just made me think that maybe we could have more responsiveness to the median voter in a state, but because red and blue politics have become so distinct, have more people who really feel themselves completely off kilter with their state government. What do you think?
Chris Warshaw: Yeah, I think that’s right. The public has gotten more polarized, which has clearly happened over the last 30 years. And I think there’s academic debates on whether the public is polarized, more or less than elected officials, and probably the public is polarized at least somewhat less than elected officials. But certainly the public is more polarized. So in Texas there’s a lot of liberals. Just like in California, there’s a lot of conservatives. And they are surely going to feel left out of the policy process as their state government, state policies maybe drift toward the other party’s preferences.
Matt Grossmann: So one of the mechanisms for responsiveness is electoral. I know it’s not the only mechanism, but more liberal states are going to elect more Democrats and that’s going to move policy in a liberal direction. But each one of those two steps isn’t one to one. So how strong are these relationships where liberal public opinion elects Democrats and democratic elections move policy leftward, and where does that break down?
Chris Warshaw: So we clearly find is that both of those connections are true. So on the one hand you get… When Republicans win an election, they’re going to shift state policy to the right. When Democrats win governorships or state legislatures, they’re going to shift policy to the left. We find that those effects have increased dramatically over time, but they’re still relatively small in absolute terms. It’s not that if Democrats… One of the things we talk about in our book is if Democrats win control of Idaho, they’re not going to turn it into Vermont instantly. So too if Republicans win control in Massachusetts, as they have in the governorship there in the recent past, their ability to make dramatic changes is pretty limited. Party control, just like public opinion, tends to have incremental effects. But we also find that as far as party control of government is actually not a big mechanism for how shifts in public opinion affect the policy process, because shifts in the public opinion don’t have huge effects on elections, at least on state elections, because politicians tend to shift with the public.
So what we find is that within party responsiveness really is an important mechanism of democracy in the states. And as an example for that, a number of states have adopted the Medicaid expansion even without a changeover in party control of government. And in the book we talk about Virginia, where in 2017 Democrats failed to win control of the state legislature, but nonetheless Virginia still adopted the Medicaid expansion because it was viewed by state legislators that Democrats had made gains in the state legislature, and I think that was viewed as a signal that the public in Virginia was shifting to the left. And there was certainly polling showing the Medicaid expansion being more popular. So in the wake of that, Virginia adopted the Medicaid expansion even though Republicans continued to control the government. And we’re seeing the same thing in North Carolina. Earlier in the 2000, in the 2010s, Indiana adopted the Medicaid expansion, though Republicans controlled the government. So we see many examples of a party adopting popular policies that maybe don’t fit their party’s preferences when they see clear signals that the public overwhelmingly supports it.
Matt Grossmann: So yeah, it may surprise people that a lot of the responsiveness is really coming in between elections and within parties controlling the same state. So what are the mechanisms of that beyond just electoral threat. At least a couple of the examples you just mentioned, it wasn’t elections themselves, but maybe the threat of losing. But it seems like your data is also showing that in Idaho, if there’s a shift, even if there’s not really any threat that the Democrats are going to take control, you’re going to expect responsiveness. So is that true and why?
Chris Warshaw: Well, I think it’s not that there’s no electoral threat. I mean elections still matter, but it’s the threat of being vulnerable in an election. One of the things we find in the book is that when partisan gerrymandering really dampens the threat of losing elections or losing control of the government, then that can dampen the policy change and can really reduce the congruence between state policies and public opinion. So I do think there needs to be that electoral threat to facilitate this within party responsiveness, but it doesn’t necessarily have to happen via party turnover, via voting out one party and voting in another party.
Matt Grossmann: So you said that the responsiveness is incremental. So explain that a little bit. And it may surprise people because some of the salient examples often look like a new party comes to power and starts trying to do everything at once. I’m living in the state capital of Michigan where the Democrats are certainly acting like they should do as much as they can in the next two years after 40 years out of full control of state government. So is there possibility that that’s changing or are we just viewing it wrong in terms of the responsiveness?
Chris Warshaw: Well, I think there’s a couple parts to unpack that question. One is that party control of government, as I said, is not totally unrelated to shifts in the mass public’s ideology or issue preference, but it’s mostly unrelated, right? Michigan didn’t shift to a democratic control, mostly because Michigan people got more liberal. It’s mostly because of 2020 was 2020 and to some extent 2022, were decent years for Democrats, particularly in the Upper Midwest. And I think another factor in Michigan is that Michigan had these really gerrymandered state legislature maps before 2022. So there was a long period where the state legislature maybe was less responsive to the public than we might expect because of those gerrymandered maps. I think the last point on Michigan is that Michigan is a little bit of an outlier, maybe because of the latter factor of the long period that they had gerrymandered maps that reduced the responsiveness to the legislature. But I think that we haven’t calculated it yet, but my guess is the policy change that we’re going to see over a two-year period in Michigan is probably one of the largest in history, if not the largest in history.
So this is not a typical … the amount of the degree of policy change we’re seeing in Michigan is extremely atypical. I think that normally it’s much more common for policy change to be slow and incremental, where you see a state legislature adopt one or two or three major policy changes in every year. And I think one way to think about this is that if you look at the larger policy, I know it doesn’t feel this way as we’re all living through the daily news cycle, but generally speaking, if you look at the, I don’t know, state statute book or the federal register, one way to think about this is what percentage of the laws are changed in any two-year period?
And it’s an extremely small percentage. And that’s true at the federal level. When Trump took control, liberals were sort of extremely frightened, scared that he was going to change all this stuff. And certainly they changed some important policies. I’m not saying that nothing changed, but as a percentage of the edifice of federal policy, it was a pretty small percentage of the overall federal policies. Now, if Republicans had kept unified control of government for 15 or 20 years and then incrementally, they would’ve accumulated and there would’ve been eventually been very large changes in federal policy, but it really takes this incremental accumulation, I think, putting Michigan aside, it usually takes this sort of gradual accumulation.
Matt Grossmann: So, Steve Rogers is the other interview for this episode, and he has written a book on accountability and state legislatures, and I know you all were on a panel together and have been in contact. He focuses on the electoral dimension, but really has some findings that would seem to make some of your findings harder to explain just that state legislators are often unknown. Some people don’t know even who controls their state government. They have a lot of trouble holding incumbents accountable for their actions given they don’t even know who they are, much less what they’re doing. So how would you guess reconcile his findings with yours? And his interpretation I think was that it’s mostly about setting the bar for accountability. That is how accountable, congruent or responsive does policy have to be for us to think accountability is occurring. So do you agree with that? And if so, how do we set that bar?
Chris Warshaw: Yeah, no, I think that’s right. So here’s what I would say is that first of all, accountability … Steve finds that accountability is pretty low in state legislatures. We also looked at this and found that it’s relatively low but not zero. If you’re an extremist in state legislatures, then you pay a one or two or three point percentage point penalty in general elections. And I think that’s generally consistent with what Steve finds.
Now, Steve’s take on that is that that’s a really low level of accountability. And my take on that is a little more nuanced. And the reason for that is, first of all, it’s not that different from Congress. The penalty people have found the penalty for extremism in Congress is maybe three or four percentage points at most for being an extremist. So if you have a one or two-point panel in leading state legislatures, that’s in the ballpark what we see in Congress. So it’s not an order of magnitude smaller.
Another piece is that we find Devon and I fund much more accountability for governors. And you see that in recent elections, where Democrats won a contested governor’s election in Kansas when there was sort of an extremist that had been the governor of Kansas. On the other side of the country in Vermont, there was sort of a very liberal democratic governor of Vermont, got voted out of office in favor of a moderate Republican. So you see much more accountability for extremism, I think in gubernatorial elections.
And governors are really important. They’re understudied, I think by academics because we like legislature, we like studying legislatures for a variety of reasons, but governors are really important and they really drive a big part of the policy process. And then putting all that together, I think that we just don’t … It’s not obvious theoretically how to say how much accountability is enough to drive legislators to be responsive to the public. You need more than zero, but you don’t need to have legislators lose 100% of the time for being extremists in order for them to worry that there might be a penalty.
And arguably, I think one could reconcile these by saying that what us and Steve find is that there is some accountability and that might be enough to drive the kind of incremental response in this that Devin and I find because remember Devin and I don’t find that state policy is instantly responsive to changes in public opinion or that elections are. We find that this responsiveness is relatively … it’s slow, it’s incremental, and it really takes a long time. And I think that could be partly because citizens are only modestly holding their elected officials accountable.
Matt Grossmann: So we also know that state legislative elections are nationalized and have become more nationally focused. And there’s an interesting, I guess, two sets of findings that I talked to Steve about that I wanted to get your take. On the one hand, we do have more people voting the same way across different levels of government. We have more consistent candidate behavior and policy across levels of government. So we have nationalized politics.
On the other hand, you can look at a near 150-year trend and see that nationally, state legislative elections have gone the same way as congressional elections for the whole time. So how should we think about how much has changed in our capacity for responsiveness and everything else, given that politics are now very nationalized, but they always have taken place in this national partisan context.
Chris Warshaw: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s interesting what Dan Hopkins shows is that on the one hand that elections are getting more nationalized. And that’s certainly true when you look at all kinds of different electoral data. But on the other hand, what Steve shows is that state legislatures have always been really tightly tied or at least shifts in the two-party state. Legislative seats have always been really tied to shifts in their fortunes in federal elections. And the correlation is extremely high between shifts in state legislative seats and shifts in US house seats.
I do think that nationalization certainly is growing to some degree, and it does seem like it’s really ticked upwards substantially in the last four to six years, really, 2018. If you look at electoral data, 2018 seems like a big inflection point for nationalization. Now we don’t know if that’s going to continue upward forever. I think if it did continue upward forever and there was 100% tie between federal elections and state and local elections, then we wouldn’t see much, if any, responsiveness of state policy to shifts in state level opinion. It would be entirely about people’s general political attitudes and shifts in party control. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I do worry that the increasing nationalization sort of breaks down some of these mechanisms for responsiveness.
Matt Grossmann:So, we’ve also talked to Jake Grumbach about his book labeling states as engines of Democratic backsliding with a lot of institutional change that might have enabled that. You also look at a bunch of institutions and reforms, but I think you have what I saw as a more optimistic take. Number one, you can have institutions that disrupt this process of public opinion impacting public policy, but in a lot of ways, those institutions are changing to improve the responsiveness between public opinion and policy. So how would you reconcile those two findings?
Chris Warshaw: One of the things we tried to do in our book is to take a very long-term perspective. And over the very long-term, we think that American democracy is stronger now than it’s ever been before. That’s certainly true at the state level, and it’s probably true at the federal level. There’s some unique threats related to election subversion and some candidates that are maybe don’t totally believe in democracy. But in terms of the structures we have, institutional structures, we think that democracy is stronger now than before. And I think that’s pretty clear when you look at how anti-democratic American government was in the not so distant past. We had Jim Crow laws that excluded vast numbers of Americans from the political process. We had malapportionment that weighted some people’s votes like a hundred times the weight of other people’s votes. And we don’t talk about this in the book, but you also had pretty clear evidence that elections were getting stolen and the not so distant past for important offices.
So I think that most of those problems have been fixed today. Moreover, it’s much easier to vote today in basically every state in the country than it was 30 years ago, let alone 50 or 60 years ago. And as a result, voter participation is way up over the past 50 years. So we think that over the very long term, democracy is stronger than it was. But we continue to face some important threats. And this is where I agree with Jake that in partisan gerrymandering especially, and if you look at Jake’s, especially his APSR article, part of the core of his data comes down to the fact that partisan gerrymandering got worse between 2000 and 2018, whatever the coverage of his study was. And that was largely due to Republican states enacting more extreme gerrymanders, not entirely, but largely due to that. And that sort of led to, I think, some of a lot of his findings.
While it’s true that over the long term, I think it’s gotten easier to vote and voter participation is up, I do worry about new restrictions being passed. And I think one of the things that Devin and I say in the conclusion of our book is that it’s sort of on all of us to continue to make democracy work better and to resist democratic backsliding, as Jake would say. So I think I certainly worry about democratic backsliding happening while at the same time finding that over the long term, our democracy is stronger than it’s been before.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you like this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, all linked on our website. Are red and blue states making red and blue policies? Do Democrats and Republicans get different results? Is democracy declining in the American states? Does nationalized media mean the death of local politics, and Are divided governments the cause of delays in shutdowns?
Thanks to Steven Rogers and Chris Warshaw for joining me. Please check out accountability and state legislatures and dynamic democracy, and then listen in next time.