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10 Fascinating Things About State Politics You Probably Didn’t Know

• May 28, 2013 • 8:00 AM

The Illinois State Capitol in Springfield, Illinois. (PHOTO: EOVART CACEIR/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

States place industrial plants near downwind borders to pass on environmental costs, state legislatures have stopped growing to keep up with population growth, and other lessons from the 13th annual State Politics and Policy Conference.

I just came back from the 13th annual State Politics and Policy Conference, held this year in Iowa City, Iowa. I’m a big fan of this conference—it reliably features really innovative work on state politics, which unfortunately rarely gets a lot of national (or international) attention. The lessons we glean from state politics are actually incredibly valuable for people concerned with American politics. The U.S. state political systems are all largely based on the federal government, but they feature interesting variations and quirks that offer useful lessons about things like governing structures, representation, regulations, reform, and so on.

Anyway, here are a few interesting things I learned during my visit to the conference this year. I’ve linked the relevant paper or poster where available.

Counties have become more polarized, but this is a recent trend, starting only in the mid-1990s.

01. Elected judges write in more readable language than appointed judges do. However, elected judges facing a potentially difficult re-election campaign use more obfuscatory language on controversial decisions. (Michael Nelson)

02. Over the past half century, state legislatures stopped growing to keep up with population growth. This means more populous districts, and people in more populous districts tend to have a poorer view of their state government. (Dan Bowen)

03. States tend to locate highly polluting industrial plants near their downwind borders, exporting most of the environmental and health costs to neighboring states. (James Monogan, David Konisky, and Neal Woods)

04. State legislators who are ideologically extreme tend to suffer at the polls for it, even though voters have almost no idea who their state legislators are or what they stand for. Steve Rogers has some research suggesting otherwise. (Nate Birkhead)

05. Members of the California Assembly from moderate districts tend to give moderate answers on political surveys. However, they still largely vote the same as the most extreme members of their parties. (Jim Battista, Josh Dyck, and Megan Gall)

06. Counties have become more polarized, but this is a recent trend, starting only in the mid-1990s. (Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz and Corey Lang)

07. Party donors pressure unwanted candidates out of primary races, especially in open primary states. (Hans Hassell)

08. Candidates will do better in elections not only if they raise more money, but also if they have more donors from a wider geographic area. (Kristen Coopie Allen. Full disclosure: I served as an outside reader on Allen’s dissertation.)

09. The diffusion of policies from states to their neighboring states represents less than 20 percent of the state policy diffusion that occurs. (Bruce Desmarais, Jeff Harden, and Fred Boehmke)

10. The states that won the Race to the Top contest for federal educational support did so because they had broadly supported applications within their states, not because they had political ties to the Obama team. (Eric Loepp)

And those are just some of the highlights. This hardly represents every interesting paper I saw or that was presented at the conference, but hopefully it gives you a taste. You can see the program for the conference here—many of the papers are linked.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

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