It’s no secret that our political system has become increasingly polarized in recent years. In fact, Pew Research regularly publishes studies on the topic and the situation is perhaps more grim than you might think. Looking back over the past 60 years, Congress has never been so politically divided, and the result is D.C. gridlock.
So how bad is the situation here in Washington State?
After serving two terms now in the House of Representatives and being elected to caucus leadership, I have my opinions. There’s certainly evidence to support the assertion that the Legislature is doing much better than Congress, but the partisan divide is alive and well in Olympia. Rather than rely on anecdotal evidence, I was inspired by what Pew and others have done and set out to quantify the problem.
A couple of weeks ago I published my first analysis of the partisan distribution of the Washington State Legislature. It also included a Partisan Leaderboard, calling out the members who are least and most likely to cross the aisle.
The methodology is simple: The partisanship score for each floor vote is calculated as the percentage of Republican supporters minus the percentage of Democrat supporters, giving each a range from 100 (exclusively Republican) to -100 (exclusively Democrat) with unanimous votes scoring zero. The member’s aggregate score is just the average of all the scores of floor votes they supported, minus the scores from those they opposed.
This approach is different than many other studies like the McCarty & Shor (2015) Measuring American Legislatures Project, which use the Political Courage Test (former National Political Awareness Test). Theirs are based on subjective questionnaires, while our scores are based on recorded floor votes.
Now we’ve taken this analysis to the next level…
If you visit WhipStat.com, you’ll now find an interactive and animated version of our partisan analysis that allows you to filter by policy area, chamber and date range. Each member is “stacked” in a histogram, allowing you to roll over the chart and see more detailed information in tooltips. Also, the median Democrat and Republican scores are indicated as vertical lines. (Technically, the median is more meaningful than the average for these scores, with half the members being above and half below the line.)
And finally, this updated analysis includes floor votes on amendments, so the scores may be slightly different than those previously published.
If you’d like to do further analysis, feel free to hit the Download button for a tab-delimited table of the charted data.
A few things become apparent when reviewing the results:
- Democrats are typically over twice as partisan as Republicans, and even more so in years when there was divided control of the House and Senate.
- The majority party will control the floor agenda, and so will exhibit more “cohesion” and be less likely to allow members to cross the aisle.
- The Democrat-controlled House was over twice as likely than the Republican-controlled Senate to bring bills to the floor that were rejected by the opposing party.
- Some members show willingness to regularly cross the aisle for specific policy areas that are important to them or their constituents. Lobbyists and advocates should take note of these policy areas.
Our goal here is simple: To provide some transparency into partisan behavior in our state legislature.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a partisan voter, and one could argue that a certain degree of caucus cohesion is necessary to be a functioning majority. However, many constituents elected their representatives with the expectation that they would exercise independent thought and work aggressively across the aisle to get results. What they may discover looking at this data is that some of their representatives are more loyal to their partisan ideology than they are to a process that involves compromise to find common ground. Given the example being set in Washington D.C., I also think we should take this moment to recognize those members on both sides of the aisle with the courage to break the partisan gridlock and work in the best interests of our entire state. If you consider yourself an independent, these members deserve your support.