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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.

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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.

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