Should State Parties Change Their Names?

In Canada, provincial parties are totally organizationally independent of federal parties and may not even have the same names. Thus, the British Columbia Liberal Party has generally been right-of-center, and British Columbia Liberals tend to vote Conservative at the federal level. Quebec Liberals have generally been more Quebec-nationalist/decentralist than the federal Liberals. Most provinces have parties named “Progressive Conservative,” even though there is no longer any federal Progressive Conservative Party. And so on.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way in the U.S. State (and even local) elections feature Republican and Democratic candidates, except in Nebraska, where state legislative elections are nonpartisan. As a result, state election results are driven by national trends. Surprisingly, political scientists had not formalized this insight until recently. Here is a paper from Steven Rogers:

State legislative elections are not referendums on state legislators’ own performance but are instead dominated by national politics. Presidential evaluations and the national economy matter much more for state legislators’ elections than state-level economic conditions,  state policy outcomes, or voters’ assessments of the legislature. Previous analyses of  state legislative elections fail to consider which party controls the state legislature and whether voters know this information. When accounting for these factors, I discover that even when the legislature performs well, misinformed voters mistakenly reward the minority party. Thus, while state legislatures wield considerable policy-making power, elections are ineffective in holding state legislative parties accountable for their own performance and lawmaking.

Tyler Cowen calls this “the problem with federalism.” But it isn’t a problem with federalism as such. It’s a problem with U.S. federalism. In Canada, you can’t send a message to the federal government by voting against the incumbent federal party at the provincial level. (In fact, provincial elections are not held on the same days as federal elections.) Changing the perverse accountability dynamic of U.S. state legislatures may require something as simple as changing the names of state parties.

State parties may even have an incentive to do this. For instance, the Republican Party in New Hampshire could change its name to something like “New Hampshire Conservative Party” or “New Hampshire Party.” By doing so, it could help to insulate itself from the partisan swings at the national level that are beyond its control.

In the last election, New Hampshire Republicans lost majorities in the state house and the executive council. The reason for this was the national Democratic swing from 2010 to 2012. Some people have tried to deny this, claiming that there was some sort of “backlash” against the O’Brien House. I have undertaken the laborious job of summing up all House of Representatives votes by party. What we see is that Republican House candidates took 51.3% of all votes cast for state representative in 2012, compared to 46.4% of votes for president and 42.5% of votes for governor. If anything, then, Republicans may have done better in the state house races than the presidential race, running ahead of the national current.

But the problem with this simple analysis is that New Hampshire has multimember and floterial districts, which means that some voters cast multiple votes for state representative. Simply summing all votes for state representative can thus tilt the results toward those towns that are part of multimember or floterial districts, and these towns might lean Republican (or Democrat) on average.

So as another check I took all single-member, non-floterial state house districts in the counties of Hillsborough, Merrimack, and Rockingham, discarding one race with a strong independent candidate. I focused on these races in part to simplify my task, but in part to make the null hypothesis (voters did not punish Republicans in the state house) more difficult to confirm. These counties not only make up more than half of all of New Hampshire’s population, but Hillsborough and Rockingham in particular are the most likely to have given Romney a personal vote. They were Romney’s stronghold in the 2012 primaries.

This procedure yielded 18 state house races, which were directly comparable to presidential voting in the same towns/wards. The average Republican share of the two-party vote in these state house races was 44.2%. The average Republican share of the two-party vote in the presidential race in these same places was… 44.1%. There is therefore no evidence whatsoever of a voter backlash against “the O’Brien regime.” There is instead strong evidence of little ticket-splitting between the presidential and state house races, with the partisan balance of the electorate essentially determining the outcome of state legislative races.

Whatever your view of the Republican incumbents in the N.H. state house, the lack of democratic accountability in state legislatures everywhere is disturbing. Nebraska’s solution of nonpartisan legislative races comes with its own problems (party labels do convey important ideological information), but a different reform — state parties independent of the national parties — may provide the solution.

7 thoughts on “Should State Parties Change Their Names?

  1. What about states like Virginia which hold “off year” elections for their state legislatures, governors, lietuenant governors and attorney generals? I know in Virginia for instance, there is a trend that has developed where the party that wins the governorship is opposite that which occupies the White House. Would more states having an “off year” election, like Virginia, help with this insulation you talk about?

    1. Hi Denver – I like that idea too. But it’s only a small improvement, because the federal environment still dominates voters’ minds when they go to the polls. That’s the reason why the incumbent federal party is often punished at the state level in Virginia; the other side is more motivated to get to the polls to register their displeasure.

  2. That’s a good point about voters registering their displeasure with the ruling party at the national level. I think one of the other issues, and ultimately the reason renaming and disassociating state and local parties from the national parties would be very difficult, is the money involved in party politics. National parties provide candidates at all levels with money and staffers for campaigning, and I believe that until parties at the state and local level can handle being cut off from that funding, and the endorsements, and the campaigning in favor of a candidate by those already in federal office, the death of Republican and Democratic parties at the state and local level will most likely neve occur.

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