The Democratic Deficit in the States

Authors


  • For helpful comments and discussion, we thank Fred Boehmke, Tom Clark, Robert Erikson, Andrew Gelman, Shigeo Hirano, Andrew Karch, Tom Ogorzalek, Robert Shapiro, Elizabeth Theiss Smith, Christopher Wlezien, and Gerald Wright. We also thank seminar/panel participants at the 2009 State Politics and Policy Conference, Temple University, University of California – Berkeley, Emory University, the 2010 Midwest Political Science Association Annual Meeting, the 2009 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, and at the Russell Sage Foundation. For research assistance, we thank Jared Drucker, Jacob Feldman, and Thomas Langer. Earlier drafts of this article received the State Politics and Policy Quarterly Award for Best Paper presented at any professional meeting in 2009 and the Pi Sigma Alpha Award for Best Paper at the 2010 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. (Replication data can be obtained from the authors or from their faculty websites.)

Jeffrey R. Lax is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 420 W. 118th, MC3320, New York, NY 10027 (JRL2124@columbia.edu). Justin H. Phillips is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 420 W. 118th, MC3320, New York, NY 10027 (JHP2121@columbia.edu).

Abstract

We study how well states translate public opinion into policy. Using national surveys and advances in subnational opinion estimation, we estimate state-level support for 39 policies across eight issue areas, including abortion, law enforcement, health care, and education. We show that policy is highly responsive to policy-specific opinion, even controlling for other influences. But we also uncover a striking “democratic deficit”: policy is congruent with majority will only half the time. The analysis considers the influence of institutions, salience, partisan control of government, and interest groups on the magnitude and ideological direction of this democratic deficit. We find the largest influences to be legislative professionalization, term limits, and issue salience. Partisanship and interest groups affect the ideological balance of incongruence more than the aggregate degree thereof. Finally, policy is overresponsive to ideology and party—leading policy to be polarized relative to state electorates.

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