RI Polarization '13 graph

Rhode Island: The Least Polarized State Legislature

There’s a big caveat here: this data is only up to 2013. As such, it doesn’t take into account the sudden shift in the House leadership in 2014 which is assumed to have taken us to the right. We’ll have to wait to see whether Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s ascension and the subsequent 2014 budget made a difference.

Back in May on RIFuture.org, I used data from political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty to suggest that Rhode Island’s position as a liberal state is merely because its State House Republicans are mostly centrist, while its State House Democrats are center-left. This both makes Rhode Island a liberal state, but it also makes Rhode Island one of the least polarized states in America. My argument is that this centrist consensus ends up damaging us, leaving us with a legislature unable to stay the course on any set of policies.

Shor and McCarty have released new and updated data, which you can download and peruse for yourself; in some cases it is incomplete. According to Shor and McCarty, Rhode Island was the 8th most liberal state among those with 2013 data. New York, Connecticut, California, Vermont, Hawaii, New Jersey, and Maryland were all more liberal (Massachusetts has no data for 2008). We were also the least polarized state in 2013.

So how has the median legislator changed over time in each party? Here’s a graph:

RI Polarization '13 graph
RI party medians in both chambers, based on Shor-McCarty data (image via Samuel G. Howard)

Quick takeaway: 2013 shifted House and Senate Democrats to the left, as well as brought Senate Republicans about back to where they were from 1997 through 2008. On one hand, you have to consider that votes like marriage equality really helped make that shift; the Senate Republicans threw themselves behind that, and the House passed it. On the other, I can’t help but think that the elimination of right-leaning Senate Republicans like Sen. Beth Moura and a few of the House Republicans like Dan Reilly and Bob Watson are also responsible for that leftward shift. In the meantime, the House Republicans have continued their trend right, which began in 2008.

How do we compare elsewhere ? (Note: Nebraska is unicameral, meaning it does not have a House of Representatives)

  • RI has the 37th most liberal House Democratic caucus according to the most recent data from states. That means our House Democrats would not be out of place in a heavily Republican state. States with similar House Democratic caucuses are Tennessee, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi.
  • RI has the 47th most conservative House Republican caucus. House Republicans are on par with neighbors in Connecticut and Massachusetts, as well as New Jersey and Delaware.
  • RI has the 39th most liberal Senate Democratic caucus, akin to the Democrats of Nebraska, Delaware, Kentucky, and South Carolina.
  • RI has the 48th most conservative Senate Republican caucus, akin to those found in our neighbor northeast states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.

So why does Rhode Island rank as liberal? Centrist Republicans.

Shor and McCarty use polarization to mean the difference between party medians. Rhode Island ranks least polarized by that measure. But Shor and McCarty also offer a party-free measurement: difference between any two legislators. Using only 2013 data, Rhode Island still ranks as least polarized. So even though our parties aren’t that different, our legislators aren’t that different either.

This may be difficult for many to accept, especially during an election season when difference is being highlighted, but Rhode Island has a very narrow political spectrum.

P.S. The common talking point that some of RI’s Democrats would be Republicans elsewhere isn’t necessarily that true. The RI Democratic caucus is to the left of the even the most liberal Republican caucus. Likewise, RI Republicans are to the right of even the most conservative Democratic caucus. That said, there’s always room for crossover.


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