With the Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly nearing the end of its long session, many observers have taken to characterizing the legislature’s work under unified GOP control.
For left-leaning groups, the legislature’s treatment of minorities, the poor, education, and environmental protections have lead some leaders to describe the Republican-controlled state government as “Robin Hood in reverse.”
Other observers outside of the Tar Heel state have described the “unimpeded GOP” as driving the “state hard to the right.”
Republicans would contend, as Governor Pat McCrory noted in a number of media interviews recently, that they are implementing what they had campaigned in 2012 on, while seeking to put their stamp on state policies.
But putting aside the partisan characterization on both sides, is there a way to independently analyze where both political parties, particularly in the legislature, are on an ideological spectrum?
In some new research on American state legislatures, two political scientists have used a dataset of roll call votes to scale the two majority parties in each state to place them on an ideological continuum.
This research mirrors the research on the U.S. Congress that lines up members of Congress in terms of most liberal to most conservative, most notably based on roll call voting on economic issues.
Using roll call votes from 1996 to 2010, the state legislative ideological scores indicate where the two parties have aligned themselves in the fifty state assemblies, from most liberal to most conservative.
If using zero as “moderate,” a score moving towards +1 would indicate a more conservative legislative party, while a movement towards -1 would indicate a more liberal bent to the legislative party.
As depicted in the below graph for the House conferences and Senate caucuses in the North Carolina General Assembly, the Republican Senate caucus has been the most conservative group in the state legislature since 1996.
State Republican senators have ranged consistently in the more conservative end of the spectrum, with their Republican breathren in the NC House have been moving more and more conservative in their orientation.
Among the Democrats in the legislature, the House conference has remained consistent in its moderate-to-liberal leanings, while the Senate caucus has moved, in recent times, from being more liberal towards a more moderate stance.
But what does this tell us about whether the North Carolina legislative parties are more “hard right” or “hard left”? One way to approach this is to compare the parties to the other Southern states.
When comparing each N.C. party in each chamber to other parties in their respective chambers, two interesting patterns emerge.
Among the lower chambers from 1996-2010, North Carolina’s GOP conference started out in a fairly “moderate” scoring, being grouped with such states as Tennessee, Virginia, and Florida.
But like our neighboring state to the west, N.C.’s GOP conference has moved more conservative, almost landing in between the moderate states and the more conservative states of Texas and Alabama, for example.
The second interesting pattern was among Democrats in the senate (upper) chambers.
Three distinct groupings appear in over the 1996-2010 time period: a grouping of fairly moderate Democratic caucuses (Louisiana to Alabama, though most all have moved more liberal in the past few years); a second grouping of South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia; and a third and distinctly more liberal grouping of Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina.
For the year 2008 (the most recent with all the Southern states represented), North Carolina’s Democratic House delegation ranked as the fifth most liberal among the Southern states, behind Florida, Texas, Virginia and Georgia, while the Republican House conference was eighth most conservative in the region.
In the upper chambers, North Carolina’s Democratic Senate caucus tied for the second most liberal group, with Florida being the most liberal for its respective Democratic senators. Conversely, the North Carolina Republican senate caucus was the fifth most conservative, being bested by the GOP senate conferences in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas.
Many political pundits have also questioned the relative “conservatism” of the GOP in both the House and Senate, usually by making the guess (based on ancedotal evidence and “gut-sense”) that the upper chamber is more conservative than their counterparts in the lower chamber.
It would appear, at least from the historic trend lines before the GOP took over both chambers in 2011, that this analysis would be accurate, but only time will truly tell when it comes analyzing this year’s legislative votes.
While the political scientists are still working to incorporate the 2011-2012 legislative voting records into their dataset, it will be important to watch what happens when the new scores reflect the GOP take-over from the 2010 elections.