Create More Competitive Districts II: A Response to Lee Drutman

In my recent Real Clear Politics essay, I argued that putting more weight on competitive districts in the redistricting process would be one means of mitigating the forces of political extremism. As I said when I first put forward a general program of political reforms to mitigate extremism, I knew that were would be counter-arguments to some of my proposals.

The excellent political scientist, Lee Drutman, did indeed tweet out that members from safe seats are no more extreme than those from competitive seats, a view shared among some or many political scientists. Since my reasons for disagreeing with that view take more than 280 characters to explain (and I’m not on twitter, in any event), I waited until I had an opportunity for a fuller explanation (excerpt below).

I think this issue is a complex and important one. As you’ll see, there are competing views even within political science, though I’m not sure these different views have been put into direct dialogue before. And legislators, as well as journalists, believe members from safe seats tend to behave differently from those who come from competitive districts. I’m sure there is much more to be said about this issue. Here’s what I said about it in that RCP essay:

Some academics, however, dissent from the view that competitive districts marginalize ideological extremism and foster moderation in Congress. This disagreement exposes a remarkable disjuncture between these political scientists and journalists who actually cover Congress. Stories with headlines such as “House Democrats in Swing Districts Are Torn Over Impeachment” are common. Beyond the headlines, stories covering Congress and state legislatures routinely describe the more moderate positions of members from swing districts compared to those in other seats. That there is often a difference between the ideological views of members from swing districts and others is a simple matter of fact among those who cover Congress most closely. Indeed, legislators themselves strongly believe this, as John Boehner’s recent memoir describes in detail.

Yet the view among this dissenting group of political scientists in recent years is exactly the opposite: that it does not matter whether members are elected from competitive seats or safe seats, because all members of each party vote similarly, regardless of the type of district from which they are elected (see here and here for two important studies). How can there be such a disconnect between those who cover Congress up close and certain social scientists who survey Congress from a greater distance?

One possible answer: These political scientists define the ideology of members of Congress or state legislatures by aggregating all (and only) the roll-call votes taken on bills. This is the easiest data point to measure, but as with quantification in general, basing analysis on the dimensions easiest to quantify can distort reality. For many years now, most legislation has not been put together at the committee level but in leadership-led centralized processes. Behind-the-scenes negotiations among party members take place at this level, when party leaders broker a package that best accommodates the distinct interests within the party. This centralized process also enables party leaders to logroll across bills, giving resistant members on one bill what they want in another bill, thus bringing them along to support both measures. By the time a bill is put on the floor for a vote, the party has largely united behind that package. And if party leaders can’t get sufficient party consensus on a bill, they never put it to a floor vote.

Counting up only the final roll-call votes obscures the differences in policy preferences between centrists and the wings of the party. As congressional scholars Frances Lee and James Curry put it, “the roll-call vote is censored”; the reality is that the parties “contend with much more intraparty conflict than one might expect from roll-call votes.”

In addition, much of roll-call voting in the modern Congress is designed as party messaging. These are votes taken to sharpen and highlight major party differences, rather than to support bills that have a realistic prospect of being enacted. As Lee documents, “Very little actual legislation becomes law by narrow or partisan majorities, but the Congress nevertheless takes many roll call votes that pit one party against the other.” Not surprisingly, these messaging roll-call votes display a high degree of party unity – that is part of their point, after all. Yet when political scientists combine all roll-call votes into a single number – without distinguishing bills on minor versus major issues or bills that are purely messaging legislation – they inevitably obscure genuine differences within the parties on significant legislation.

Indeed, sophisticated new work in political science is already starting to undercut the view of those analysts who doubt that safe seats foster extremism. Rather than treat roll-call voting on all issues as the same, Professors Brandice Canes-Wrone and Kenneth Miller focus on only the most significant bills a given Congress votes on, which in their study range from two to six bills a year. On these bills, they find that members in safe seats respond far more to their most polarized donors than do members in competitive districts. This is true for a broad set of issues, including capital gains taxes, partial-birth abortion, the Affordable Care Act, or other highly salient issues.

More specifically, Canes-Wrone and Miller find, first, that national donors are much more polarized than donors from within a member’s district. They then find that when seats are competitive, representatives respond much more to the preferences of their constituents, but that when seats are safe, representatives are more responsive to the preferences of this highly polarized national donor class. In other words, in safe seats, members can defect more from their district’s preferences and endorse the more extreme positions of their national donors. This is not surprising: If you’re going to win a safe seat with 75% of the vote, you have a lot of slack to satisfy your national donors with positions that your constituents don’t support, even if your victory margin winds up dropping by 10 points next time. But if your district is competitive, you can’t afford to stray much from the preferences of your constituents. This is why I have also argued that to reduce extremism, a public financing system that provides $6 for every $1 a candidate raises from small donors – another aspect of H.R. 1 – should limit those matching funds to small donors from within a member’s district.

In sum, those who cover Congress most closely, congressional members themselves, and some cutting-edge work in political science all confirm that members from safe seats tend to be more extreme than those elected from competitive districts. One way to counter political extremism, as new districts for Congress and state legislatures get drawn across the country, is to insist on the importance of creating competitive districts.

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