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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Data Shows How the GOP Drives Polarization — and Gridlock

At The Guardian UK, Harry J Enten illuminates “How polarisation in Washington affects a growing feeling of partisanship” with some interesting data analysis. Enten begins by commenting on a recent Nate Silver blogpost:

The basic premise of Silver’s article is that House districts have been more polarized of late. That is to say, there are fewer swing districts. In addition, fewer districts are voting for one party for House and another for president…The conclusion one might draw is that many legislators have little reason to play to the middle, and that’s why Washington seems more partisan than it used to be.

Enten then cites presidential election figures from a New York Times article by Adam Liptak, which indicated that “…in 1976, there were near 25 states that came within three points of the nationwide margin and well over 30 that were within five points of the nationwide vote. In 2012, it was eight states within three points of the nationwide margin and 10 within five points.” Enten adds, that in November 2012, however, “there were only 14 states out of 50 where the statewide margin came within 10 points of the nationwide margin!”
In terms of the U.S. Senate, the consequences have been more than substantial:

This increased polarization has translated to the Senate makeup. After the 1992 elections, when Republicans won 43 seats, 49% of the Democratic caucus came from states that voted more Republican than the country as a whole, while about 28% of the Republican caucus came from states where Bill Clinton won by a greater margin than he did nationwide. After the 2012 elections, in which Republicans won a slightly higher 45 seats than 1992, only 25% of the Democratic caucus comes from states where Obama underperformed his national margin, and only 16% of the Republican caucus comes from states Obama won by a greater margin than he did nationally.
…You would think that House Democrats may have become more liberal over the past 20 years, given that they are increasingly safe districts. In 1992, only 51% of the Democratic caucus came from seats that were five points or more Democratic than the nationwide presidential vote. In 2012, 88% of Democrats came from districts won by Obama by five points or more – a 37-point increase.

Using data crunched by Christopher Hare, Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal in their Voteview Blog paper, “Polarization is Real (and Asymmetric),” Enten tracks roll call votes to see how these numbers are reflected in partisanship in congress, using the “DW nominate score method,” which puts legislators on a scale from -1 for most liberal to 1 for most conservative. The chart and numbers he presents indicate that,

Interestingly, the scores don’t indicate that House Democrats have really become any more liberal….There has, however, been an increase in partisanship in the house, and it truly is “asymmetrical”. The Republican House caucus has been becoming more conservative every year since 1977, whether or not House Republicans are winning or losing elections. Republicans have climbed from 0.4 on the DW nominate scales after the 1992 elections to near 0.7 in the last congress. That type of charge towards polarization is historically unusual over data that stretches back 130 years.
The fact that it is House Republicans who have become more partisan is somewhat surprising given that the party caucus is representing only slightly more Republican territory than it did 20 years ago. The percentage of Republicans representing seats that went for the Republican presidential candidate by five or more points than nationwide only increased from 74% to 90% – a 16-point increase. That is far less than the 37-point increase that House Democrats, who aren’t much more partisan than used to be, experienced during the same timeframe.

Enten goes on to note a parallel effect with respect to the U.S. Senate — not much change among Democrats, but,

Republicans, on the other hand, have slowly and become more conservative in their roll call votes by moving from about 0.3 to 0.5 on the scale. You might expect this trend given Republicans are representing more Republican leaning states, but the magnitude is quite noticeable given that the average Democratic ideology during the same period didn’t move under polarization.

In addition to roll call votes, Enten explains:

The number of cloture motions since the Democrats took over the Senate in 2007 is 391, an average of 130 per Senate. It would take the last six Senates combined before 2007, that is to say those from 1995 through 2007) to match this total. In the final Senate before the Republicans took over in 1995, there were 80 cloture motions…It’s not just that Republicans aren’t allowing bills to be voted upon in an up-or-down vote, it’s that they are blocking bills in far greater numbers than they did 20 years ago.
When Democrats were in the minority for of the 1995 to 2007 time period, the most cloture motions that were filed in a Senate was 82. Since 2007, the fewest number of clotures in a Senate has been 115. The average number per Senate when Democrats were in the minority was 70 – some 50 less than when Republicans were in the minority the past six years.

The data is just overwhelming. As Enten concludes, “Yes, Democrats block bills, but Republicans block many more. This is gridlock at its finest (or worst)…the feeling that Democrats and Republicans are further apart than they used to be is upon inspection of the evidence more because of Republicans than Democrats.”
The challenge for Democrats is to distill these findings into memorable message points that connect with average voters.

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