Geography, Uncertainty, and Polarization

56 Pages Posted: 8 Aug 2014 Last revised: 18 Sep 2015

Nolan McCarty

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; Princeton University - Department of Political Science

Jonathan Rodden

Stanford University

Boris Shor

University of Houston - Department of Political Science

Chris Tausanovitch

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Political Science

Chris Warshaw

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science

Date Written: August 27, 2015

Abstract

Using new data on roll-call voting of U.S. state legislators and public opinion in their districts, we explain how ideological polarization of voters within districts can lead to legislative polarization. So-called "moderate'' districts that switch hands between parties are often internally polarized: the ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans within these districts is often greater than the distance between liberal cities and conservative rural districts. We present a theoretical model in which intra-district ideological polarization makes candidates uncertain about the ideological location of the median voter, thereby reducing their incentives to offer moderate policy positions. We then demonstrate that among districts with similar median voter ideologies, the difference in legislative behavior between Democratic and Republican state legislators is greater in more ideologically heterogeneous districts. Our findings suggest that accounting for the subtleties of political geography can help explain the coexistence of a polarized legislature and a moderate mass public.

Keywords: polarization, public opinion, geography

Suggested Citation

McCarty, Nolan and Rodden, Jonathan and Shor, Boris and Tausanovitch, Chris and Warshaw, Chris, Geography, Uncertainty, and Polarization (August 27, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2477157

Nolan McCarty

Princeton University - Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs ( email )

Princeton University
Princeton, NJ 08544-1021
United States

Princeton University - Department of Political Science ( email )

Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1013
United States
(609) 258-1862 (Phone)
(609) 258-2809 (Fax)

Jonathan Rodden

Stanford University ( email )

Stanford, CA 94305
United States

Boris Shor (Contact Author)

University of Houston - Department of Political Science ( email )

Houston, TX 77204-3011
United States

Christopher Nicolas Tausanovitch

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - Department of Political Science ( email )

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Chris Warshaw

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Department of Political Science ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139
United States

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