As I talk to voters, I regularly steer the conversation away from Presidential politics and encourage voters to discuss South Dakota’s ten ballot questions, education funding, corruption, and the other big issues our Legislature should be focusing on.
A new study says I shouldn’t even try. According to Professor Steven Rogers of Saint Louis University, voters pay little attention to their state legislatures:
In his new study, Rogers writes that the public often has no idea what’s going on in their state legislatures, or what their state representatives are arguing about or why. They don’t even know who their representatives are.
…He notes that just 1 percent of local news is about statehouse news. The vast majority of local coverage — more than 60 percent — is instead about the presidential election, one study found [Jeff Stein, “This Study Shows American Federalism Is a Total Joke,” Vox, 2016.09.05].
Instead, contrary to Tip O’Neill’s famous dictum that “All politics is local,” Presidential politics drive voters’ state legislative choices more than local factors:
The relationship between presidential approval and state legislative vote choice is robust. Levels of voter political knowledge or divided state government have no attenuating effect, and the relationship persists among wealthy, educated, or politically interested voters. The correlation between state legislative vote choice and presidential approval also consistently emerges when estimating the model on data subset by state. Therefore in state legislative elections across the country, changes in presidential approval clearly matter more than shifts in state legislative approval even though legislative parties control the legislature’s performance more than the president’s [Steven Rogers, “National Forces in State Legislative Elections,” The Annals of the American Academy, September 2016].
Thus, legislative candidates trying to hold incumbent legislators accountable for poor performance in Pierre may be out of luck:
These analyses are just a portion of findings regarding the dim prospects for accountability in state legislatures. I show elsewhere that there is little evidence that state legislators are held accountable for worsening crime, education, or economic policy outcomes, and few individual legislators pay an electoral price for extreme ideological representation or unpopular roll-call votes (Rogers 2013).
Taken together these findings suggest that state legislators have relatively little control over their own elections [Rogers, Sept. 2016].
If we legislative candidates aren’t captaining our own destinies, perhaps we Democrats can take some solace in the Presidential polls. I don’t have South Dakota data handy, but President Barack Obama’s national approval rating has been below his disapproval rating during the last three legislative elections. Right now, the President’s Approve has been higher than his Disapprove since March, and his approval rating is above 50%.
Dang—as Stein suggests, maybe I should be encouraging voters to talk about Presidential politics and the big, positive legacy President Obama is leaving us.