Schwarzinst policy report c grose leg polarization report

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Schwarzenegger Institute Report University of Southern California | Price School of Public Policy

Political Reforms in California are Associated with Less Ideologically Extreme State Legislators

March 2016

Christian R. Grose Associate Professor University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy Dept. of Political Science Schwarzenegger Institute Report University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy 1

SIGNIFICANT FINDINGS Evidence suggests electoral reforms in California are associated with an ideological shift by legislators away from the extremes. Since the introduction of top-two primaries and independently drawn district lines, the Legislature is becoming more moderate and less polarized. From 2011 (pre-reform) to 2014 (post-reform): 路 The California Assembly has seen a 34% reduction in legislator ideological extremity. 路 The California Senate has seen a 31% reduction in legislator ideological extremity. 路 The reduction in ideological extremity and legislative polarization has been most pronounced among Democratic legislators.


The Changing Landscape of California’s Politics: The Political Reform Earthquake of 2012 In 2012, California’s political landscape changed dramatically. For the first time ever, elections were conducted using the novel nonpartisan top-two primary; and also for the first time ever, the state’s legislative districts were drawn not by the legislators or the courts – but by a nonpartisan commission. Voters prior to 2012 adopted both of these reforms at the ballot box. On the side of one or both of these political reforms was a bipartisan and nonpartisan coalition of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Common Cause, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California NAACP, California AARP, former governor Gray Davis, former lieutenant governor Abel Maldonado, political activist Charles Munger, Jr., former speaker of the California Assembly/current senator Bob Hertzberg, and others. Opposing the reforms were many elected officials in the two major parties. While the battle to pass these political reforms was fierce, we are only now able to assess if and how the reforms may have changed the state’s legislative politics. Have these electoral reforms made a difference in California and do they have the potential to reduce ideological extremity among legislators across the nation? Has legislative polarization in California been reduced following the implementation of the nonpartisan redistricting commission and the top-two primary? By comparing the behavior of California legislators before and after the reforms (in 2011 when legislators serving were elected under the old system; and in 2013-14 when legislators served after the reforms were adopted), we can assess whether legislators have become more moderate pre- and post-reform. Previous work (Grose 2014) preliminarily suggested that the California legislature was more moderate post-reform than pre-reform, though that research was based only on the year immediately following the reforms. In contrast, other preliminary work suggested the reforms were not yet effective at reducing ideological extremity (McGhee 2014). Other work on the effect of primaries or redistricting on candidate, voter, or legislator behavior has been mixed, finding some marginal effects of the reforms (Alvarez and Sinclair 2012; Alvarez and Sinclair 2015; Sinclair 2013), while others have suggested there 3

is less of a link between similar reforms and polarization (e.g. Masket, Winburn, and Wright 2012; McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2009). All of this work has not considered 2014, and in this policy report I examine the effect of the political reforms on candidate and legislator behavior in 2014. I examine ideological extremity in the California legislature in 2013 and 2014 (the period postimplementation of these electoral reforms) and compare it to ideological extremity in the California legislature in 2011 (prior to the electoral reform implementation). This work updates Grose (2014), where I examined roll-call voting in the California legislature in only 2011 and 2013. Like that previous work, the findings suggest that state legislators in California are more moderate and less ideologically polarized in both 2013 and 2014 (post-reform) than they were in 2011 prior to the implementation of the redistricting and top-two primary reforms. The California Assembly had a 34% reduction in ideological extremity between 2011 and 2014, and the California Senate had a 31% reduction in ideological extremity between 2011 and 2014. In both the Assembly and the Senate, the moderation appears to be greatest among Democratic legislators. Public Policy Advocates: Reforms Are Intended to Reduce Legislative Ideological Extremity Opponents of the closed primary system argue that – in the absence of competitive general elections – closed primary systems elect more polarized, ideologically extreme representatives and thus increase gridlock.1 This occurs, they allege, because candidates win closed primaries by appealing to core partisan voters – and the primary winner is often the de facto winner of a legislative seat in many constituencies. Advocates argue that given these changed electoral dynamics, once legislators are elected they will also be more moderate than those legislators elected under closed primary systems. Policy advocates claim that polarization in legislatures between parties and legislator extremity may be reduced by top-two primaries. Similarly, policy advocates of nonpartisan redistricting commissions have also argued that candidates will change their behavior when they are elected in districts that are more competitive because


Greg Giroux, “Would a ‘Top-2’ Primary Election Help Reduce Gridlock? Bloomberg. 13 December 2014. <>


they are drawn by a commission instead of incumbent legislators. Advocates of nonpartisan redistricting reform argue that when incumbent legislators cannot draw their own district lines, it makes it more difficult for the incumbents to retain districts that protect their reelection campaigns. If nonpartisan redistricting commissions do not consider incumbent or partisan protection in their decisions in redrawing lines, many advocates of redistricting reform argue that the result will be candidates more willing to compete for votes across party lines and legislators who are elected who support less extreme policies. Academic Research on Political Reforms What does political science say about the claims of advocates and critics of primary and redistricting reform in regards to candidate strategies under different primary systems? Theoretically, significant changes to electoral systems should affect candidate behavior. Candidates running in more competitive districts due to redistricting or candidates running in top-two primaries instead of closed primaries should theoretically change their behavior due to the changes to the electoral system. This candidate behavior may translate to changes among legislators. The empirical work on the top-two primary has shown some changes in legislator and elite behavior, while other work has found a mixed impact of the reform on voting behavior. Grose (2014) found that the political reforms were associated with more moderate California state legislators in 2013 compared to 2011. McGhee and Shor (2015) similarly found changes to legislative ideology post-reform in California. In contrast, McGhee et al. (2014) find little difference in legislator ideology when new primaries are adopted. However, they find some evidence of moderation under California’s previous reform, the blanket primary. Alvarez and Sinclair (2012) and Bullock and Clinton (2011) find some modest changes to legislator behavior following the blanket primary as well. Mostly examining voter behavior, Alvarez and Sinclair (2015) find that the top-two primary had some effects, though not always exactly as anticipated. Hill and Kousser (2016) find that independent voters are more likely to participate in the top-two primary in California when told they can participate. On the ability for redistricting reform to lead to change in candidate or legislative behavior, the political science research is tempered in terms of its predictions of effects. The conventional wisdom is 5

that the type of redistricting can affect electoral competitiveness (Carson, Crespin, and Williamson 2014; Peterson 2016; Yoshinaka and Murphy 2011), but the relationship between redistricting and legislator extremity is not clear in existing work in political science (e.g., Masket, Winburn, and Wright 2012; McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2009). In this policy report, I seek to examine this puzzle between policy advocates – who expect the electoral reforms to change elite behavior – and the more muted findings in the extant academic research in political science and public policy. Analysis: California’s Legislature was More Moderate after the Political Reforms I examine whether legislator behavior was changed in California during the period of the political reforms. Was the implementation of the top-two primary and nonpartisan redistricting commission associated with changes in legislator behavior in the California legislature? Is legislator ideological extremity and polarization reduced in the period post-reform when compared to the pre-reform era? I examine legislator voting in the California Assembly and the California Senate both pre-reform and post-reform. I estimate legislator ideology measures based on all roll calls taken in 2011 before any political reforms had been implemented (prior to the August 2011 announcement of the California Citizens’ Redistricting Commission district maps and the implementation of the top-two primary in the 2012 election).2 I also estimate comparable legislator ideology measures based on all roll calls taken in 2013 and 2014.3 The legislator ideology measures use every roll call cast during these periods to determine how liberal or conservative each legislator is. These ideology scores can also be used to estimate extremity for legislators in California and political polarization between the two parties. The legislator ideology measures are estimated using an algorithm called NOMINATE (Poole et al. 2011). This and similar methods of estimation have been used to scale the ideology of the U.S. Congress, U.S. state legislatures, and legislatures outside of the U.S. (e.g., Bertelli and Grose 2011; Grose


Roll-call data is from Jeff Lewis <>. I estimate legislator ideology before the June 2014 primary in 2013-14; and after the June 2014 primary to assess whether legislator voting behavior changes in the primary and the general election under the new top-two system. In this report, I do not examine legislator ideology after the 2011 maps were released or in 2012 as the predictions of ideology are inconclusive in this period – the reforms were not yet implemented and many members were retiring – yet the new redistricting map had been announced. 3


2011; Lo 2013; Masket, Winburn, and Wright 2012). Writing in the Washington Post, Hare, Poole, and Rosenthal (2014) explain that NOMINATE scores “measure legislators’ liberal-conservative positions using their roll call voting records.” In addition, the NOMINATE algorithm and its estimates of legislator ideologies have been covered in the popular press when assessing the extent of political polarization in the U.S. (e.g., Haidt and Hetherington 2012; Hill and Tausanovitch 2015; Kurtzleben 2015). For more information, please visit Keith Poole’s web site ( I apply the NOMINATE algorithm to all roll calls and legislators in the California Legislature in the periods discussed above. Within each legislative chamber, these ideology estimates are comparable over time. A legislator serving in 2011 can be compared to herself in 2013 and in 2014 to see if she moderated or became more extreme following the reforms. This legislator’s ideology can also be compared to other legislators, thus allowing for an analysis of overall ideological change toward moderation or extremism over time in the entire legislature.4 The ideological scale ranges from -1 to +1 with -1 being the most liberal point on the scale, and +1 being the most conservative. Moderate legislators are located closer to zero than to the extreme values of -1 or +1. I then measure legislator ideological extremity as the absolute value of this NOMINATE scale. When examining the absolute value, the ideological extremity scale now ranges from 0 to 1 with scores near 0 being moderate and scores near 1 being extreme. Results: California Legislators are Less Extreme following the Primary and Redistricting Reforms Legislative voting in California is, on average, less extreme in 2013 and 2014 following the enactment of the top-two primary and redistricting reforms. Figure 1 displays the change in legislative voting in the California Assembly over three periods: (1) before the redistricting maps were announced and before the first top-two primary was held (in 2011); (2) the period after the new members were first elected under the new primary system and redistricting map (2013 through June 2014); and (3) the period 4

To make the scales comparable over time, I made identification assumptions, including constraining some ideologically consistent legislators over time. I used the wnominate program in R to conduct the estimation, and I present the first-dimension ideological estimates in this report. Please contact the author for more details. I estimated the ideologies of legislators in each chamber separately. Thus, while legislators within each chamber are comparable to one another over time, they are not comparable across chambers.


after the second top-two primary was completed (the rest of 2014). The 2013-14 period is the time legislators elected under the top-two primary and in districts drawn by the nonpartisan redistricting commission. All Assembly members ran in 2012 under the new system, and one-half of the California senate was up for election in 2012 under the new system.5 Figure 1: Mean legislator ideological extremity, California Assembly 1 0.9 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 2011 Pre-reform: Before redistricting map announced

Jan. 2013 - June 2014 Post-reform

2014 Post-reform: Before 2014 general election

Lower values of y-axis = lower ideological extremity Figure 1 shows the mean absolute value of the legislator ideology scores for the California Assembly for the three periods – the first period is pre-reform and the following two periods are postreform in 2013 and 2014. The most extreme possible legislator score is at 1.0, and the most moderate legislator score is near 0.0. In the Assembly, the mean legislator extremity score prior to the reforms was over 0.7. Clearly, the average Assembly member was very extreme in 2011 before the reforms were implemented. In the post-reform period, Assembly members moderated. The mean legislator extremity score was 0.53 during 2013-14 before the legislators faced the June 2014 primary. Following the June 2014 primary, in the third time period displayed in the x-axis in Figure 1, Assembly members in 5

In this report, I do not present the 2012 period in the figures as the predictions for legislator behavior are unclear – legislators may moderate in anticipation of the changed redistricting maps and the new primary system or they may not change behavior until the legislative session after the reforms were fully implemented (following the 2012 election).


California moderated slightly again. The mean legislator extremity measure at the end of 2014 was 0.48. Comparing the extremity measure in 2011 and comparing it to the extremity measure in 2014, this is a 34 percent reduction in ideological extremity in the Assembly pre- and post-reform. Figure 2: Mean legislator ideological extremity, California Senate 1 0.9 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 2011 Pre-reform: Before redistricting map announced

Jan. 2013 - June 2014 Post-reform

2014 Post-reform: Before 2014 general election

Lower values of y-axis = lower ideological extremity A similar pattern is also observed in the California Senate. In 2013 and 2014, after the political reforms were implemented, the average senator was less ideologically extreme than the average senator in the 2011 period prior to the announcement of the redistricting maps and the implementation of the toptwo primary. Figure 2 shows that the average senator in 2011, pre-reform, had an ideological extremity score of 0.51. In the period immediately after the reforms (in 2013-14 after the 2012 elections with the new maps and the new primary system used by half of the senators elected through staggered terms), the average ideological extremity score was 0.48. This was nearly the same as in the pre-reform period, suggesting the Senate did not immediately shift dramatically in the post-reform era. However, in the last period displayed in Figure 2 (following the June 2014 primary – meaning that all California senators had actually run in a primary in the top-two system either in 2012 or 2014), the average California senator’s roll-call ideological extremity had declined. It was only 0.35 in the last part of 2014. Recall that the most moderate value on this scale would be 0, and the most extreme would be 1. Thus, the results suggest that 9

the average senator is fairly moderate in 2014. Further, from early 2011 to late 2014, the average California senator had a decrease in ideological extremity of 31%. The results show that the California Legislature has moderated in 2013 and 2014 following the election of legislators via the top-two primary in districts drawn by the nonpartisan redistricting commission. The changes in the Assembly have been particularly stark, with significant declines in average ideological extremity. In the Senate, there was not initially a major change in ideological extremity between the pre-reform and post-reform legislative periods. However, following the 2014 June primary, the second time in which the top-two primary had been used, the California Senate also witnessed a reduction in ideological extremity. Results: Post-reform Legislative Moderation Is Most Pronounced Among Democrats In addition to looking at average legislator ideological extremity scores in the entire Assembly and Senate, I also estimated these scores for the political parties. This allows us to see if partisan polarization and extremity between the parties has declined. Figure 3 shows the mean ideological extremity score for Democratic Assembly members and the Republican Assembly members separately. The moderation seen in the California Assembly occurs entirely due to the Democratic Assembly members. In 2011 prior to the implementation of reforms, the average Democratic Assembly member was at 0.76, a very extreme score on the 0-to-1 point extremity scale. Immediately after the first election held under the new redistricting map and top-two primary, the average Democratic Assembly member in 2013-14 dropped to 0.46 on the ideological extremity scale. Then, in late 2014 after the June 2014 toptwo primary, the average Democratic Assembly member extremity had dropped to 0.39. This is a whopping 37 percent decrease in ideological extremity among Democratic Assembly members from 2011 to the end of 2014. The Republicans in the Assembly, though, did not moderate. As can be seen in Figure 3, during the pre-reform 2011 period through the 2013-14 post-reform periods the mean Republican Assembly


member ideological extremity score changed very little. Nevertheless, because of the reduction in Democratic Assembly member ideological extremity, polarization between the parties was reduced.

Figure 3: Results Separated by Party, Mean legislator ideological extremity, California Assembly 0.8 0.7 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1 0 2011 Pre-reform: Before redistricting map announced

Jan. 2013 - June 2014 Post-reform Democrats

2014 Post-reform: Before 2014 general election


Lower values of y-axis = lower ideological extremity

Figure 4: Results Separated by Party, Mean legislator ideological extremity, California Senate 0.7 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.3 0.2 0.1 0 2011 Pre-reform: Before redistricting map announced

Jan. 2013 - June 2014 Post-reform Democrats

2014 Post-reform: Before 2014 general election


Lower values of y-axis = lower ideological extremity 11

Figure 4 shows the average ideological extremity for Democratic senators and Republican senators. Democratic senators have moderated in both periods following the implementation of the reforms. The average extremity score for Democratic senators in 2011 was 0.54. In the post-reform period in 2013-14 prior to the 2014 primary, the Democratic senator ideological extremity score average had fallen to 0.41; and in the second post-reform period in 2014 after the June 2014 primary, the Democratic senator average had fallen even further to 0.37. The trend among Democrats, both in the Assembly and Senate, is toward ideological moderation in the periods following the implementation of the political reforms. Among Democratic elected officials in the California Legislature, the anticipated moderation that advocates of these political reforms expected appears to be occurring. Interestingly, Republican senators do not show a consistent decrease in ideological extremity. Immediately after the reforms, Republican senators actually became more conservative, going from 0.48 to 0.63. Of course, state senators in California face staggered terms with only half of the membership having been elected or re-elected after 2012, and the other half potentially facing reelection in 2014. In the latter part of 2014, as shown in Figure 4, once every senator had faced a primary election under the top-two system (the period after June 2014), legislative voting among Republican senators moderated to 0.30. By the end of 2014, both Democratic and Republican senators exhibited more moderate roll-call voting than did senators in both parties in the pre-reform period in 2011. This suggests that – when comparing 2011 to 2014 – polarization between the two parties in the California Senate declined. However, this polarization decline was not evident in the earlier period of the 2013-14 Senate session. Conclusion: Reforms Are Associated with Candidate Bipartisanship and Legislator Moderation California’s political reform earthquake – which included the new districts drawn by the nonpartisan redistricting commission and the first use of the top-two primary in 2012 – was significant to the state. Reformers argued that one or both of these electoral reforms would lead to a change in the state’s political polarization among its candidates and legislators.


The political reforms are associated with changes in legislator behavior. California state legislators are more moderate in 2014 (post-redistricting and top-two primary reform) than they were in 2011 (pre-reform). Advocates had anticipated that these electoral reforms might remake legislative politics. It is still too early to know if the changes in legislator voting will be long lasting, but legislators in both the Assembly and Senate are more moderate after the implementation of these reforms and ideological extremity has been reduced. The reduction in political polarization between the two parties in the California Legislature has occurred mostly due to the moderation among Democratic legislators in the post-reform period. While promising to reformers seeking to reduce ideological and partisan polarization, the analyses have their limitations. With these legislative analyses in particular, it is difficult to tease out a causal effect of electoral reforms on California with these data. The redistricting commission and the toptwo primary were two reforms introduced at the same time, so it is difficult to distinguish which of these reforms had a greater effect. In addition to these two reforms, other changes have occurred over the same period: the removal of the Legislature’s supermajority vote requirement for budget measures, external political factors such as increases in independent expenditures in legislative races, and demographic and partisan changes among the states’ voters. Future research is needed to examine the effect of these political reforms on the politics of the Golden State and the country. Research should examine whether members of Congress changed their behavior after the reforms when compared to other members of Congress who did not reside in states with significant reforms. Other work should examine the flow of campaign contributions to candidates. Have candidates in the post-reform period been able to successfully raise funds from individuals and groups across the ideological spectrum? Has campaign funding changed under the new system? What role do interest groups and their endorsements play – especially in same-party Democratic versus Democratic or Republican versus Republican contests – in the new post-reform campaign and electoral environment? Many new questions are raised by this research, but we can conclude that candidate behavior is more bipartisan in top-two systems and legislators have moderated following the political reforms. 13

Works Cited Alvarez, R. Michael and Betsy Sinclair. 2012. “Electoral Institutions and Legislative Behavior: The Effects of Primary Processes.” Political Research Quarterly 65:544-57. Alvarez, R. Michael and J. Andrew Sinclair. 2015. Nonpartisan Primary Election Reform: Mitigating Mischief. New York: Cambridge University Press. Bertelli, Anthony M. and Christian R. Grose 2011. “The Lengthened Shadow of Another Institution? Ideal Point Estimates for the Executive Branch and Congress.” American Journal of Political Science 55:767-781. Bullock, Will and Joshua D. Clinton. 2011. “More a Molehill than a Mountain: The Effects of the Blanket Primary on Elected Officials Behavior from California.” Journal of Politics 73:1-16. Carson, Jamie L., Michael H. Crespin, and Ryan D. Williamson. 2014. “Reevaluating the Effects of Redistrictin on Electoral Competition, 1972-2012.” State Politics and Policy Quarterly 14:165-77. Grose, Christian R. 2011. Congress in Black and White: Race and Representation in Washington and at Home. New York: Cambridge University Press. Grose, Christian. 2014. “The Adoption of Electoral Reforms and Ideological Change in the California Legislature.” USC Schwarzengger Institute Report. Haidt, Jonathan and Marc J. Hetherington. 2012. “Look How Far We’ve Come Apart.” New York Times 17 September. Hare, Christopher, Keith T. Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. 2014. “Polarization in Congress Has Risen Sharply. Where Is It Going Next?” Washington Post/The Monkey Cage 13 February. Hill, Seth and Chris Tausanovitch. 2015. “No, Americans Have Not Become More Ideologically Polarized.” The Washington Post. 13 October. Hill, Seth and Thad Kousser. 2016. “Turning Out Unlikely Voters? A Field Experiment in the Top-two Primary.” Political Behavior 1-20. Kurtzleben, Danielle. 2015. “Two Charts That Show How Boehner Had an Impossible Job.” National Public Radio 27 September. <>. Lo, James. 2013. “Legislative Responsiveness to Gerrymandering: Evidence from the 2003 Texas Redistricting.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 8:75-92. Masket, Seth E., Jonathan Winburn, and Gerald C. Wright. 2012. “The Gerrymanders Are Coming!” PS: Political Science and Politics 45:39-43. McCarty, Nolan, Keith Poole, and Howard Rosenthal. 2009 “Does Gerrymandering Cause Polarization?” American Journal of Political Science 53:666-680. McGhee, Eric. 2014. “Has California Cured Its Political Dysfunction? Not So Fast.” The Monkey Cage/Washington Post. 30 January. 14

McGhee, Eric and Boris Shor. 2015. Paper presented at State Politics and Policy conference, Sacramento, California. McGhee, Eric, Seth Masket, Boris Shor, Steven Rogers, and Nolan McCarty. 2014. “A Primary Cause of Partisanship? Nomination Systems and Legislator Ideology.” American Journal of Political Science. Peterson, Jordan Carr. 2016. “The Mask of Neutrality: Partisan Considerations and Judicial Redistricting.” Working paper, University of Southern California. Poole, Keith T., Jeffrey Lewis, James Lo, and Royce Carroll. 2011. “Scaling Roll Call Votes with wnominate in R.” Journal of Statistical Software 42:1-21. Sinclair, J. Andrew. 2013. Of Primary Importance: American Primary Elections 1945-2012. Ph.D. Dissertation, California Institute of Technology. Yoshinaka, Antoine and Chad Murphy. 2011. “The Paradox of Redistricting: How Partisan Mapmakers Foster Competition but Disrupt Representation.” Political Research Quarterly 64:435-47.


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