Why is Minnesota’s legislature so polarized?

The Pioneer Press has a fascinating article on polarization in the Minnesota House of Representatives. The remarkable finding, based on a computer analysis of Minnesota House voting records, is that the most moderate member of each party votes more like the most extreme member of his own party than the most moderate member of the other party. In other words, there is a wide gulf between Democrats and Republicans:

State Rep. Paul Marquart is by any measure one of the most moderate members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. An anti-abortion Democrat from a conservative district, Marquart crosses party lines regularly and says he tries to vote on “how things impact rural Minnesota and my district” rather than what the DFL caucus wants.

But Marquart, of Dilworth, is also an example of the yawning chasm between Democrats and Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature. Even he has more in common with the most liberal Democrat in the House — Minneapolis Democrat Jean Wagenius — than the least conservative Republican, Bloomington Republican Chad Anderson.

Only one of the 137 men and women to serve in the House the past two years — Winona Democrat Gene Pelowski — put up a voting record more similar to a member of the other party than to the most extreme member of his own.

You might think that being elected in a swing district would make a Representative’s votes more moderate or bipartisan, but that doesn’t turn out to be true:

Being from a more liberal or more conservative district has some relationship with how liberal or conservative a lawmaker votes. But perhaps surprisingly, it’s not a very strong relationship.
Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University who looked at the data, said that in Minnesota’s there’s only “a weak relationship between conservativeness of district and conservativeness of [its] representative.”

So it makes a big difference whether you vote for an R or a D, regardless of where you live.

In the Minnesota House, Republicans are more inclined toward compromise or moderation than Democrats:

The decades-old tool, called W-NOMINATE, uses roll call votes to rate every lawmaker on a scale from -1 (most liberal) to +1 (most conservative). A score of 0 would be exactly in the middle — a very lonely place in the Minnesota Capitol, where the typical Democrat scores at -.75 and the typical Republican at +.68….

Is this polarization of the Minnesota legislature unusual? Probably not:

“It shows basically that the Minnesota House of Representatives is just as polarized as the national parties in Congress,” said Keith Poole, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia….

Nor is that necessarily a bad thing. Today’s political parties present voters with relatively clear choices:

[Representative Joyce] Peppin, of Rogers, said she was only “a little surprised” to see such a huge gap between Democrats and Republicans.

“Clearly Democrats and Republicans stand for different things, and that’s going to reflect in our voting records,” Peppin said.

Perhaps most interesting is the observation that the polarization of the Minnesota House exceeds that of the population of the state generally, but probably not the polarization of those who are politically engaged. The House is divided because Minnesotans who care passionately about politics are divided:

[Princeton University political science professor Nolan McCarty] argued that legislatures like Minnesota’s “actually do reflect the views of the partisan voters,” because “the people who tend to identify with one party tend to be more informed, more engaged” — and thus, more likely to elect someone who shares their views. The activists also tend to be those in charge of endorsements and who vote in primaries, leading to more partisan lawmakers ending up in general elections.

Minnesota’s not unique. These trends have been taking place across the country.

It is an interesting study that opens up a number of channels for debate. Is it bad, as so many assume, that today’s politics are so divided? Or is it a good thing when voters are presented with a clear choice? I tend toward the latter view, but you can read the Pioneer Press article and decide for yourself. What is clear is that whether you want Minnesota’s politics to be more middle of the road or to lean sharply in one direction or the other, you have to participate in the process if you want your voice to be heard. And that means not waiting until Election Day.