Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Political Leapfrog Hops Over Most Americans

• October 30, 2010 • 11:00 AM

Americans hoping to triangulate their votes to chart a course between the extremes of ideology find their representatives are sailing even faster to the fringes.

If U.S. midterm election results turn out as predicted, Republicans will take over the leadership in the House of Representatives and pick up several seats in the Senate. But if voters wanted change because they felt that Washington had become too liberal, don’t expect the median U.S. voter to be any better represented in the 112th Congress.

Instead, what will likely happen — since it has been happening for at least the last few Congresses — is that the median voter will instead be “leapfrogged.” That is, that in seats that switch from Democratic to Republican, the elected representative will go from being too liberal for even the median Democratic voter in the state to being too conservative for even the median Republican voter, jumping right past the moderate masses.

It’s a process that Dartmouth political scientists Joseph Bafumi and Michael C. Herron call “leapfrog representation” and describe in great detail in a study, “Leapfrog Representation and Extremism: A Study of American Voters and Their Members in Congress,” in the August issue of American Political Science Review.

Pity the median voters. In 2006 and 2008 elections, they felt like their representatives and the Congress had become too far right for them, so they elected Democrats. But then the Democrats turned out to be too liberal for them, so they turned away from the Democrats and now are presumably back to picking Republicans in hopes of moderating back the other way. But according to the best available information, the new class of Republicans are probably going to be turn out to be too conservative.

“The median legislator in the House is going to leapfrog right over the median voter,” explained Bafumi. “And the House will offer more conservative policy. And in some sense that’s what the median voter wants, to check the current liberal policy and moderate it.”

But give it another cycle or two. There’s a pendulum here, and Bafumi predicts that, “Obama will be seen as someone who is checking Republican extremes in the House and the Senate.” (Assuming, of course, that Republicans do in fact over-reach and Obama deals with them in a similar way as Clinton did.)

This research is the latest entry into an ongoing political science question of measuring political polarization.

While it’s increasingly clear that Congress and political elites have become highly polarized over the last few decades, there has been less consensus among political scientists as to whether that polarization is mostly an elite-level phenomenon (Morris Fiorina and Sam Abrams have argued here that “the most direct evidence … shows little or no indication of increased mass polarization over the past two decades”), or whether it’s at least partially driven by increasingly polarized voters (as, for example, Alan Abramowitz argues in a new book, Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy).

One of the challenges in answering such a question — and what drew Bafumi and Herron to this project — is that it is quite difficult to quantify the match between the preferences of the mass electorate and their political representatives. Roughly 40 percent of voters might call themselves “moderate” — but what exactly does that mean when it comes down to how they would vote on a given issue? And even the 20 percent of voters who call themselves “liberal” or the 40 percent who call themselves “conservative” — how useful and representatives are these labels, anyway?

“I’ve always been interested in the question of whether the median voter is adequately represented by the median member of Congress,” said Herron said. “But if you ask them whether they are liberal or a Democrat, you don’t know how to place them on a line. We wanted to be able to compare the responses of voters to statements that politicians make.”

So what the researchers did was instead of asking voters to identify their ideology, they asked respondents in the Cooperative Congressional Election Study to give their opinion on a wide range of issues that came up for a vote in the 109th and 110th congresses — everything from federal funding for stem cell research to the Patriot Act to Internet gambling to coastal oil drilling to prescription drug benefits. Then they matched up those positions with how members of Congress voted, creating a much more precise bridge than the self-identified ideology scores.

What they found was that elected federal legislators, particularly in the House, were much more extreme than the median voters in any particular state, which is not that surprising. But most were even more extreme than median voters within the parties, which was a bit unexpected. “We were surprised at how polarized the representatives are,” Bafumi said. “They are even more extreme than their own median partisan.”

The researchers estimate that in any given state, 90 percent of the voters are less extreme than their representatives, and that only a handful of senators and congressmembers are less extreme than the median Republican or Democratic voter in the state. (The study only focused on voters, leaving out non-voters, who tend to be even more moderate, though less well-informed.)

The extremism, however, was more pronounced in the House than the Senate. “The concern of the Framers was that the House would be over-reactive and they wanted to moderate that with a chamber that was less reactive,” Herron said. “It’s neat that our data is consistent with that. The turnover rate in both chambers were about 10 percent, but we got a much bigger reaction in the House.”

While there are many explanations for why legislators have become more extreme than the voters, one that the particular data allowed the researchers to investigate was the role of political donors. Bafumi and Herron found that voters who also donate something to campaigns (roughly one-third of all voters in the survey) are noticeably more extreme than the non-donating voters.

“It could be that people in elected office are more prone to represent activists, the people who get them there,” Bafumi said. “They’re representing the people who donate to them, and give them their time. We know that more politically active Americans are more polarized, and that may be what’s happening.”

Unfortunately for those who value moderation in representation, it does not appear that this pendulum swinging is going to lessen in intensity anytime soon. In fact, given the ever-increasing role that outside money is playing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the polarized nature of donors, there are reasons to think this will get worse.

The researchers caution that the data is only based on two congresses, but plan to extend the study to see how this plays out over the next several years. In the meantime, it looks like American politics will continue to be a game of leapfrog in which the most extreme can expect to win.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Lee Drutman
Lee Drutman, Ph.D., teaches at the University of California Washington D.C. Semester Program. He has worked as a staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Providence Journal. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Newsday, Slate, Politico and the American Prospect.

More From Lee Drutman

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


September 26 • 8:00 AM

A Letter Becomes a Book Becomes a Play

Sarah Ruhl’s Dear Elizabeth: A Play in Letters From Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and Back Again takes 900 pages of correspondence between the two poets and turns them into an on-stage performance.


September 26 • 7:00 AM

Sonic Hedgehog, DICER, and the Problem With Naming Genes

Wait, why is there a Pokemon gene?


September 26 • 6:00 AM

Sounds Like the Blues

At a music-licensing firm, any situation can become nostalgic, romantic, or adventurous, given the right background sounds.


September 26 • 5:00 AM

The Dark Side of Empathy

New research finds the much-lauded feeling of identification with another person’s emotions can lead to unwarranted aggressive behavior.



September 25 • 4:00 PM

Forging a New Path: Working to Build the Perfect Wildlife Corridor

When it comes to designing wildlife corridors, our most brilliant analytical minds are still no match for Mother Nature. But we’re getting there.


September 25 • 2:00 PM

Fashion as a Inescapable Institution

Like it or not, fashion is an institution because we can no longer feasibly make our own clothes.


September 25 • 12:00 PM

The Fake Birth Mothers Who Bilk Couples Out of Their Cash by Promising Future Babies

Another group that’s especially vulnerable to scams and fraud is that made up of those who are desperate to adopt a child.


September 25 • 10:03 AM

The Way We QuickType


Follow us


Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

Would You Rather Go Blind or Lose Your Mind?

Americans consistently fear blindness, but how they compare it to other ailments varies across racial lines.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.