The Structure of Utility in Spatial Models of Voting


  • This article was supported by NSF Grant SES-0611974. James Lo also acknowledges support for this project by SFB 884 on the “Political Economy of Reforms” at the University of Mannheim (project C4), funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG).


Empirical models of spatial voting allow legislators' locations in a policy or ideological space to be inferred from their roll-call votes. These are typically random utility models where the features of the utility functions other than the ideal points are assumed rather than estimated. In this article, we first consider a model in which legislators' utility functions are allowed to be a mixture of the two most commonly assumed utility functions: the quadratic function and the Gaussian function assumed by NOMINATE. Across many roll-call data sets, we find that legislators' utility functions are estimated to be very nearly Gaussian. We then relax the usual assumption that each legislator is equally sensitive to policy change and find that extreme legislators are generally more sensitive to policy change than their more centrally located counterparts. This result suggests that extremists are more ideologically rigid while moderates are more likely to consider influences that arise outside liberal-conservative conflict.