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Legislative Candidates Don’t Control Their Fate; Presidential Politics Rule

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.


  1. troy jones 2016-09-06 09:39


    I think you should herald the Obama Presidency as the centerpiece of your campaign. Be courageous.

  2. Darin Larson 2016-09-06 10:20

    Troy, and you should herald the Trumpster as the centerpiece of Republican philosophy and policies for the next generation. Of course, you will have to figure out which Trump position you are going to adopt on each issue, i.e., were you for the war in Iraq or against it, should we have withdrawn from Iraq completely or stay there indefinitely, should we defend our allies and our treaty obligations or let Putin do what he wants, should we violate human rights laws or not, should we restrict the freedom of the press or not, are we the land of the free and home of the brave or the land of the scared and cowardly, do we continue to value immigrants’ contribution to our great country or do we kick them all out if they aren’t married to Trump. These are just a few of the things you are going to need to sort out.

    If Trump gets elected, I’m buying gold and ammunition.

  3. Troy Jones 2016-09-06 11:48


    I reject Stein’s thesis as correlation doesn’t equal causation. But, if it is true, Obama’s net positive approval national is not the situation in SD.

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-09-06 13:42

    Troy, am I not already there with the body of my Obama blogging? And won’t the opposition try to do that, regardless of what I choose as my centerpiece?

    Funny that the Rogers research suggests I should do exactly that and spend my time trying to change people’s negative attitudes about President Obama.

  5. Porter Lansing 2016-09-06 13:50

    I just donated to the Heidelberger Campaign Fund. Please join me. South Dakota couldn’t have a more conscientious public servant with the good of both political parties and Independents at heart. As you know, I don’t even live in SoDak and there’s not a darn thing I want from Cory. I’m doing this for you because I want what’s best for my home state.

  6. Troy Jones 2016-09-06 14:28


    If you think you have that much persuasive ability to change what is likely a negative Obama approval rating in your district and you buy correlation=causation, go for it.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-09-06 16:09

    Porter, thank you very much. If your support and my conscientious use of it can overcome the national forces that Dr. Rogers says are beyond our control, I’ll put my conscience to good use for all of South Dakota. (Heck, give me a couple terms and a Democratic majority, and I may even make you want to come back! :-) )

  8. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-09-06 18:16

    Troy, that is the path to victory prescribed by Dr. Rogers’s research. However, I recognize the limitations of my persuasive power.

  9. jake 2016-09-06 20:58

    Troy, witness South Dakota’s ruling party of last 30 year’s record with corrupting EB-5 , GEAR-UP and anti-women’s reproductive rights and tell us how much better off the state is because of the GOP??!! Please? Obama will go down in history as one of our better presidents, for sure…

  10. Darin Larson 2016-09-06 22:09

    I’m with Tip O’Neill on this question.

  11. Leo 2016-09-07 00:16

    Don’t believe the national media hype Cory! Do what you are doing! You are doing the greatest service to South Dakota voters there is…..informing them. Do you believe that KELO, KDLT, KSFY, SDPB, that Sioux Falls paper, etc., would do a pro/con informative town hall regarding all the ballot issues? Probably not, but they will be committing journalistic malpractice by not doing so….on every issue, ballot initiative, and SD constitutional amendment as you have. God Bless the Atheist! He seems to be the only one doing God’s work for the People!

  12. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-09-08 09:24

    Leo, thank you. Darin, I want to side with Tip O’Neill, and I’ll keep campaigning that way. Dr. Rogers’s conclusions may be correct, but they may only describe a status quo in which legislative candidates and their local media don’t do enough to cut through the national campaign noise and educate voters about state-level issues. Rather than make the play to the prevalence of national politics and that Troy and I discuss, I am happy to try to change the conditions of the experiment.

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