For the past few years I’ve posted on our interactive online tool that analyzes the partisan distribution of our state legislature. The goal is to call out members with the courage to vote independently of their caucus. Often candidates will run as moderate or independent during the campaign, but we find that their floor votes in Olympia are right down party lines. This tool provides some transparency into their actions, versus their intent.
If you recall, 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.
Looking back to 2003, we see a relatively normal distribution curve for both parties. And while there isn’t as much overlap in the middle as there’s been in generations past, we do see that there are moderates on both sides of the aisle and even some true independents that have represented us in Olympia.
It is interesting to note that during this time period the most independent members have run as Republicans and that Democrats are generally much less likely to vote against their party. You can also easily identify the three members who have switched caucuses.
So now, consider the 2019 legislative session results:
Notice a problem?
Both parties are now considerably more partisan and there are no independents (or arguably even moderates) left in the state legislature.
So how has this changed over time? Let’s take a look…
In the above graph, range lines show a standard deviation above and below the mean. Markers represent the median value. The bars in the center represent the party balance, which has almost always favored Democrats.
What can we conclude?
- Both parties have trended more partisan during this time period.
- The median tends to consistently fall the left of the caucus mean with Democrats.
- Democrats are now over twice as partisan as they were in 2003-04 under Gov. Gary Locke.
- The partisan divide is almost twice as wide now as it was in 2007-08, when the Democrats had a 42 seat advantage.
This “death of the middle” I see as a unhealthy development for our state (and not just because I was one of the moderates unseated with this wave of political polarization). Compromise is a necessary part of the political process, and we need moderates on both sides of the aisle willing to bridge the divide to find common ground. During the 5 years there was divided control of the legislature, it admittedly took much longer to hammer out bipartisan agreements…but the resulting work product was worth it. Our bipartisan budgets typically passed with 90% support, while only 57% voted for this last biennial budget (including no Republicans and not even every Democrat).
Clearly, changes are needed.