Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Median Voter Theory

The following graphs (which required a fair bit of work) display the percentage of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate held by the majority party in the past 110 Congressional sessions. (Figures reflect biennial election results only, not subsequent deaths or defections.) You can click on the graphs to enlarge them.



Let me draw your attention to a pattern: the House and Senate have gradually become more evenly divided over time. This suggests to me that the Democratic and Republican parties have become quite good at competing with each other. We have entered an era where razor-thin majorities become the norm.

Although the Democratic and Republican party platforms have much in common, especially when compared to divisions among European parties, there are still significant differences between them. They have not fully converged to the views of the median voter, but appear instead to have converged to a state of constant polarization; other forces are still at work keeping the parties some distance apart.

Given the supermajority rules of the Senate, has the efficiency of the major party duopoly condemned us to an era of partisan gridlock? Is this a flaw in Madisonian Democracy?

24 comments:

USWest said...

Wonderful graphs! Quite impressive! Thanks for putting those together.

I know that you are trying to show how control of the houses by parties has looked over time. If I were building a trend line, I’d would see peaks about ever 50 years. This especially noticeable in the Senate chart, and the peaks tend to correspond with wars starting with the Revolution and the War of 1812. They are followed by valleys and then stabilization. The House follows the Senate, but is a bit more chaotic. The thing is that the peaks are less dramatic as we move forward.


Of course, the up until the 17th Amendment in 1913, Senators were chosen by state legislatures. So that might influence the composition of the Senate.

During the Civil War, the country was divided and thus, the Congress was filled with Yanks. Thus, you see the dots rise up the scale. As the South is reintroduced to Congress, you see the trend head down.

The parties have evolved and thus changed over time. So what was once Republican is now Democrat. The easiest example is that Lincoln was a Republican who signed the Emancipation Proclamation after the civil war, but it was Democrats that pushed for Civil Rights in the 1950-1960s. Another is that the South has become Republican. That may not matter so much in that we have pretty much had only 2 parities. And those parties have solidified their control over the political system, even if their respective platforms have changed over time.

I think Americans tend to vote more conservatively in general, that the influence of the media, the use of big money and K street, and unabashed gerrymandering have all combined in a toxic mix to create a convergence between the parities that makes voting nearly irrelevant. I have said it before: Politics is branding and marketing. When they can do studies that prove all brown-haired, one-armed women vote Republican, and then tailor a message to that group, you have basically made a joke of the electorate. Candidates have to strive to show us how they are different. We are basically voting based on nuance. And since most people don’t handle nuance well, they vote on single hot button issues. So long as that is the case, I don’t see where you are going to get anything more than even-steven polarization.

The Law Talking Guy said...

A lot of things are at work here, so thanks for putting this info up.
1. The winning electoral combination will always tend to 50%+1 of the electorate. Over time, better polling and campaigning techniques have made it easier for parties to hit that mark without overshooting.
2. The South has voted as a weird irregular block since the 1840s. Voting patterns in the South have during the late 20th century gradually come to look more like rest of the country.
3. The franchise has expanded dramatically. In the past 87 years, the vote has been extended to women, blacks (in practice), and 18-year-olds. Increasing heterogeneity of the electorate may lead to more competitive parties.
4. Gerrymandering may be less of a factor than people think, insofar as it does not affect the Senate much.
5. Direct election of Senators matters. Before 1913, the Senate's caucuses were not simply majority/minority party as they are today. The development of coordinated national campaigns for congressional seats over the past 30 years may explain a tendency to greater competitiveness.
6. Both House and Senate have also quadrupled in size since 1789. The House was 65 members under the constitution, but organized itself to be 105 members shortly thereafter in 1791. It grew to 435 in 1920, where it has stayed. The Senate has increased by 4 since then.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Given the law of large numbers, one might expect that the "noise" in the system would decrease with the increase in membership. However, the most dramatic convergence occurs in the 20th century when--as has been pointed out by LTG--the membership of each body was fixed. The increasing franchise that LTG points out may be a statistical factor, however: all things being equal, one would expect random mood swings in the electorate to decrease as the square root of number of voters. (All things are not equal, of course, but it's still a reasonable, partial explanation worth considering.)

USWest reminds us that politics is branding and marketing, and to me these graphs support the notion that the major political parties are getting better at it. Even without the supermajority rules in the Senate, a near-even split with persistent polarization is no recipe for successful democratic governance.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I also note that the House and Senate have different rules for representation--the Senate is highly disproportionate--but we see the same pattern in both. In fact, the convergence appears to me even more clearly in the Senate chart. This supports the idea that the political parties are shaping their messages in a more precise way across states and populations to achieve 50/50 in both houses. That double requirement is harder to reach.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Glad you like the graphs, you guys! And gals.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It has been said that there are not 2 political parties, but 435. Each rep is his or her own party. The problem is that districts change every 10 years. State borders don't change. So it may be that parties are capable of a fine state-by-state balance. That explains, perhaps, why Republicans and Dems are competitive for governor's races in both red and blue states.

Anonymous said...

Another possible factor is the chaning make up of the electorate. We now have a huge baby boom generation and a growing number of younger voters in their 20s. I am not sure if you can detect a pattern in how generations vote as they age, but there is that old addage about, "If you are young and voting conservative, you are uninformed and if you are old and voting liberal, you are stupid", something like that. If indeed this is true then you might end up with two large blocks on either side of the GenXers that are canceling each other out? I don't know. Just floating an idea.

Anonymous said...

Another question is whether a two-party system is desirable, and what changes would need to be made to allow such competition? I personally think a third party in the mix allowing interplay would be beneficial. What do you guys think?

Anonymous said...

The last comment/question came from the Spotted Handfish, currently struggling with Italian keyboards...

Dr. Strangelove said...

Italian keyboards... Mamma Mia! I thought Italians just talked with their hands.

In a winner-take-all system like that of the U.S., a two-party system seems the most stable equilibrium. At one time in the early 1800s we had essentially one party, and at various times we have had several, but it seems to return to two. I think if you look around the world at similar systems, you see the same thing. And I am starting to wonder if that is a problem, if it leads to polarized gridlock--as the trend in the graph suggests it may.

In proportional systems (most parliaments) the story is different. From a quick glance of current conditions (I welcome clarification from anyone who actually knows the history) England and Canada seem to have 2.5 or 3 parties. Israel has at least 3-5 parties, Germany has perhaps 6, and . On the other hand, Italy has lots and lots of parties and party-lets but these form two coalitions, making them effectively two evenly divided parties. France has individual constituencies but also lots of runoffs, so it has lots of tiny parties but ends up with two main coalitions, like we do.

So from that very quick look, my thought is that by moving away from the strictest winner-take-all for each seat, but steering clear of the other extreme--national parties selected by national proportion--you can end up with a system where there are a handful (but no more) viable parties. I am not sure if we want it, but it certainly seems like it's a dial one can adjust by moving along the single-seat to national-party scale.

I am sure the genuine political scientists in our mix have a better way of discussing this.

USwest said...

The anonymous comment about the changing make up of the electorate is mine. I thought I was signed in.

I know we have discussed this issue several times on the blog. And the general conclusion has been that a 2 party system is pretty much it. LTG is correct in that there are really 435 parties. They all hash out their differences in their caucuses. That,I think is the key. You can have two parties in a stable system, so long as those parties contain a spectrum of views. This is the case in our system.

Third parties are useful in altering the nature of the debate, but they end up being absorbed by one of the larger two. In that sense, it is similar to having coalitions.

We don’t have just two parties anyway. We have all sorts of parties, many of which are more of a joke than anything else. But in the end only 2 get elected with the occasional oddball. I think it was a New England state that had a socialist in Congress at some point. I forget which state it was. And even the two big parties have their weirdoes like our friend from Alaska, Mike Gravel. That guy looks like he is going to go postal any second. Ron Paul is normal, just a libertarian who actually makes sense most of the time.

In math, doesn’t everything gravitate toward the mean? Well, I think that is a general rule. To build an analogy that I hope is correct: A molecule is comprised of two atoms held together by some chemical bond. The arrangement of the atoms inside the molecule will determine its nature. Change the atoms, you change the nature. Politics is similar.

Raised By Republicans said...

Gee, I miss checking the blog for a few days and all this stuff happens!

There are a lot of things to respond to so forgive me if I miss some of them.

I'll address the closing rhetorical question from Dr. Strangelove, "Given the supermajority rules of the Senate, has the efficiency of the major party duopoly condemned us to an era of partisan gridlock? Is this a flaw in Madisonian Democracy?"

The answer to this is "not from Madison's point view." Indeed, we have "gridlock" by design. This is not a flaw but rather the entire POINT of Madisonian democracy. They feared intrusive governemnt above all things and so designed a government that would hamstring itself at every turn.

I'll address other points in seprate commens...

Raised By Republicans said...

Regarding the convergence of seat shares and its relationship to ideology. I think US West hit on a major explanatoin by pointing to the Recontruction period and its ending.

Here is an additional possible co-explanation...When both parties are based on local clientelism rather true ideological differences (this was largely the case before the Depression/WWII), we would expect a great deal of variation in the voting from election to election. When ideological differences between the parties are clear and the popularity of those positions stabilizes, we would expect the kind reduction in election to election variation we have observed. This in itself doesn't explain its convergence at 50-50 though.

Raised By Republicans said...

Leaving aside the issue of whether gridlock is a good or bad thing in the short or long run, will adding a third party reduce gridlock?

I am certain that it would not. Adding more parties can increase the amount of gridlock or it can have no effect (a likely outcome given our multi-cameral legislative procedure). Political science research (see especially work by George Tsebelis on veto players and related research) has pretty well established that adding parties to a legislature will not increase legislative productivity (i.e. reduce gridlock).

The Law Talking Guy said...

As for Madison and gridlock, I have one comment. While the filibuster was known in Madison's day, it was a very rare tactic that was primarily about delay and negotiation rather than a veto. There were no cloture votes at all until the 1920s. Before that, a filibuster was real - you just kept talking or you gave up. Madison's scheme did not include a _standard_ requirement for supermajority votes in the Senate, which is what the modern 60-vote rule has turned into.

Raised By Republicans said...

Lack of votes on cloture does not mean it had no effect. The fact that a filibust was possible could have effected the content of every bill that went through the senate without a single vote on cloture taking place.

Nowadays we have TV and rapid media and direct election of Senators. All this could add up to a reason to force the actual votes to take place when the negotiations fail.

Raised By Republicans said...

Also, it is all but certain that Madison constructed the Constitution - especially with regard to legislative procedures - with minority protection in mind. A review of any of the Federalist Papers will reveal that the main concern was putting place institutions that would prevent the "tyrrany of the majority."

The Law Talking Guy said...

RBR - I understand your point that the filibuster threat mattered, but it was far less of a threat than the modern 60-day vote rule. For example, filibusters were dramatic acts that stopped all senate action. You had to be willing to trade progress on everything for a filibuster and endure substantial physical pain. For example, you cannot lean on anything while you filibuster. Today, the silent filibuster permits other actions to go on, and it costs nothing. So yes, the threat existed, but it only prevented the most outrageous legislation from being enacted; it didn't create a permanent minority veto like we have today.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Remember the start of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent is lying down in front of the bulldozer to stop them from destroying his house? It's a great scene. After lying down for a minute or so, Arthur reasons with the driver of the bulldozer that--since they are both resigned to this standoff--then there is no need for Arthur to actually lie down and instead he could go off and have a drink at the local pub. Which he does.

It is interesting, though, that the Senate voluntarily adopted the higher-threshold cloture vote. Apparently, Senators preferred to preserve the possibility to block legislation more than they desired the possibility to push legislation forward. Which tells you a lot about politicians.

The Law Talking Guy said...

I think this is a misreading of cloture, Dr.S. Originally, there was no cloture vote at all, so one person could theoretically filibuster until he keeled over. A 2/3 vote was instituted in the 1920s (I think that early) to prevent a small group of wayward senators from tying the Senate in knots through endless filibuster. That was lowered to 60 votes in 1975. But only in the past 20 years has the "gentleman's filibuster" come to be the norm, where the test of wills need not be done. So cloture (shut up and sit down) ceased to be an club of majority rule and became a bulwark of minority protection.

It is interesting to note that cloture was adopted shortly after the direct election of senators. Previously, senators organized themselves into caucuses rather than strict party divisions, and were not running for re-election in the ordinary sense of the word ever. They preferred to avoid partisanship in one sense, because they wished to be re-selected by the home state legislature rather than tossed out as a result of local electoral whims. Keep in mind that in the 19th century, annual elections for the lower house were common. Still happen in VT. Biennial elections were a product of states where the legislature only met every other year (still common).

Raised By Republicans said...

"Apparently, Senators preferred to preserve the possibility to block legislation more than they desired the possibility to push legislation forward. Which tells you a lot about politicians."

No, it tells you about democracy. Democracy is about preventing the state from abusing your liberties and since which liberties you care about are subjective, you have to be able to block policies other people like.

LTG makes an excellent point about how changes in Senate procedures sorrounding the cloture vote can make a difference on its influence. Point taken.

Dr. Strangelove said...

My mistake. I should not have said "cloture" was the problem, but that gentleman's agreement which treats every motion as though it were effectively being filibustered... which only manages to work even as well as it does because the cloture motions exist to end debate.

The Law Talking Guy said...

It may be no surprise, however, that the gentleman's filibuster accompanied the rise of an evenly divided Senate that Dr.S so ably documents with his charts. So instead of having 60-40 votes as a matter of course (because one party so dominated the other) we now have them as a matter of law.

Who should be surprised, then, that in 2005 we finally experienced a limit to the filibuster power... the emergence of the "nuclear option" (the technical ability of the presiding officer of the Senate to declare a filibuster of judicial confirmation in violation of senate procedure). The "nuclear option" threat succeeded brilliantly in breaking the back of the gentleman's filibuster as a tactic. But it came with a price. If exercised, the nuclear option would remove the right of either party to ever filibuster judicial nominees. As it is, the threat has curtailed that right.

Republicans may come to rue the day they threatened it when a Dem takes the WH and starts nominating judges. Democrats are more likely to exercise the nuclear option than Republicans, because the long-term result (losing the ability to filibuster judicial nominees) is a far greater cost to the right than the left. Put another way, the ability of the Democrats to force a pro-choice SC judge over Republican objections will humiliate Republicans and terrify their base, defeating all they have worked for over the past 20 years, but Democrats can handle pro-life judges: after all, the majority of voters favor abortion rights in the end (as the Economist explained last year in a great editorial last year).

Raised By Republicans said...

Just one last jab...remember when we were all talking about the Meiers/Roberts/Alito nominations? We were actually praising the wisdom of having the supermajority requirement? Why? Because we opposed those nominees and our party was in the minority. Now were in the majority and our blog is full of complaints about the undemocratic nature of supermajority requirements.

I'll refrain from such flip flopping. Hurrah for the cloture rule!!