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Wright and Schaffner: The influence of party

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Wright and Schaffner. 2002. The influence of party: Evidence from the state legislatures. American Political Science Review 96: 367-390.


Parties matter. It is partisan competition in the electorate that creates a low-dimensional (nearly unidimensional) ideological cleavage in the legislature. But "where the parties are not active in the legislature--Nebraska is our test case [compared to Kansas]--the clear structure found in partisan legislatures disappears" (377).


  • Hypothesis 1: Elections based on partisan conflict produce a unilateral liberal-conservative issue space. Nonpartisan elections, on the other hand, can preserve a multidimensional issue space. Thus, Nebraska should have a "less structured issue space since the parties are not actively bundling the issues" into two opposing camps (pg 370).
    • Using factor analysis, the authors show that candidates' issue positions align more strongly around a single issue dimension in Kansas than in Nebraska (Table 1). Still, the results disappoint the authors. As you can see in Figure 1, Nebraska and Kansas don't appear all that different. In fact, Table 2 suggests that both states have a cleavage structure strongly defined by a single dimension: partisanship.
  • Hypothesis 2: When parties are more involved in elections and primaries (as in Kansas), elections will yield "a pull toward the ideological poles of the parties" (pg 371).
    • The data do not support this hypothesis, just as they didn't support hypothesis 1. Neither dimensionality (H1) nor polarization (H2) seems to vary much when comparing Kansas with Nebraska.
  • In Sum: "We began to suspect that partisanship had finally found its way into Nebraska legislative politics" (pg 373), until...


  • Hypothesis 3: Because Nebraska's Unicameral is not run by partisan elites and partisan committees, partisanship will have much less effect on roll call votes than in Kansas.
    • As Table 4 and Figure 2 show, this appears to be the case. Partisanship appears to be a strong second dimension, but it does not explain the primary legislative cleavage in Nebraska politics. (It does, however, explain the primary legislative cleavage in Kansas.)


  • This whole study seems to have a major logical flaw. The authors claim that electoral competition leads parties to "bundle ... diverse issues," and without parties "legislators, activists, and the media would be much less likely to see any obvious connections among them" (pg 377). But the authors' evidence shows that the results of Nebraska's elections are the same as Kansas's, both in terms of issue dimensionality and party polarization. Thus, there is no variance in X. Thus, this statement (pg 377) seems flawed: "Parties produce the ideological low-dimensional space as a by-product of their efforts to win office [including in Nebraska]. Where the parties are not active in the legislature [Nebraska], [this] clear structure ... disappears."
    • Could it be, then, that institutional factors matter? Henry Kim (2005) presents evidence that the institutional centralization/decentralization of a state legislature can affect the sorts of things that Wright and Schaffner are talking about. Owing to its nonpartisan tendencies, I would guess that Nebraska is decentralized (like Kim's Virginia), but what is Kansas like?
  • The effects in Table 4 and Figure 2 are striking, but are roll call votes really comparable across state lines? In many states, roll call votes are used to embarrass the opposition or promote party discipline. Nebraska, however, has a normative commitment to nonpartisanship. Does this commitment lead Nebraskan legislators to call for roll call votes in different circumstances? Relative to legislators in other states, perhaps Nebraskan senators are inclined to call more roll call votes that demonstrate bipartisan cooperation rather than polarization. After all, "incumbent legislators [in Nebraska] have nothing to gain electorally from partisanship; incumbency is worth more at the ballot box when it is unaccompanied by party labels. Nebraska legislators apparently are aware of this" (376).
    • The authors' effort to answer this concern (Figure 3) suggests instead that Kansas and Nebraska have strikingly different habits when it comes to calling roll call votes. I don't understand why the authors dismiss this concern.
    • Do these states always have roll call votes (as in most states), or are voice votes also allowed?
  • In Figure 1, it appears that there is a stronger partisan cleavage in Nebraska than in Kansas--which completely goes against the authors' theory. They don't seem concerned about this, though.