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All Politics Is Local? The Debate and the Graphs

A former Massachusetts congressman is perhaps most famous today for saying “all politics is local” (or, perhaps, “all politics are local”; I’ve seen it written both ways). Here’s the Wikipedia explanation of the saying:

The former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill coined this phrase which encapsulates the principle that a politician’s success is directly tied to his ability to understand and influence the issues of his constituents. Politicians must appeal to the simple, mundane and everyday concerns of those who elect them into office. Those personal issues, rather than big and intangible ideas, are often what voters care most about, according to this principle.

I never thought much about this — it seemed reasonable enough to suppose that voters care about their everyday concerns — until I ran across the following observation from Newsweek commentator Mickey Kaus:

There are elections where [O’Neill’s principle] doesn’t necessarily apply — one thinks of 1980, 1994 and 2008 as elections in which national issues and themes mostly predominated over local issues. … 1998 (impeachment) and 2002 (terrorism) and 2006 (Iraq War) … In other words, every midterm for the last two decades has been inexorably nationalized. Including this one [2010]. … You would hope that by the next midterm O’Neill’s aphorism will be so obviously wrong that even highly paid political analysts won’t trot him out, even to disagree.

I think Kaus is right, and I’d go one step further and say that, sure, all politics are local — if you’re Tip O’Neill and represent a ironclad Democratic seat in Congress. It’s easy to be smug about your political skills if you’re in a safe seat and have enough pull in state politics to avoid your district getting gerrymandered. Then you can sit there and sagely attribute your success to your continuing mastery of local politics rather than to whatever it took to get the seat in the first place.

After I linked approvingly to Kaus’s remarks, the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein expressed his disagreement, writing:

Yes, but: don’t most Members of the House have ironclad partisan districts? And isn’t the most important single thing they can do to protect themselves involve having pull in state politics to avoid being gerrymandered? That is “all politics is local,” no?

There’s also a fair amount they can do to stay on the good side of their local party, thus avoiding a primary fight. And, even in an era of nationalized elections, there’s still plenty a Member of Congress can do to to influence elections on the margins, and that’s often what matters.

Sure, “all” politics isn’t that stuff, but it’s quite a bit. If I were a Member of Congress and had the choice between (A) controlling national tides, and (B) controlling my state’s redistricting, then I’m going to choose B every time — and that’s in O’Neill’s column.

I don’t think Bernstein quite catches the original meaning of the quotation, though. Yes, the Tip O’Neills of the world need local skills to win the primary election that gets them into their safe seat, and they need backroom political skills in the state legislature to keep their safe seats every 10 years.

But I don’t think this is what people are talking about when they say “all politics is local.” It usually is meant to refer to constituency service. All the constituency service in the world won’t stop you from getting gerrymandered.

Politics is less local than it used to be

Now it’s time to bring on the data. The claim I want to make is that elections in the United States have become increasingly nationalized in recent decades. That is, Kaus is right.

Here is some evidence from presidential elections. For each presidential election year in the graph below, I computed the interquartile range (that is, the 75th percentile minus the 25th percentile) of the swings in vote proportions for the Republicans in the 50 states. I exclude third-party votes. Here’s the gradually decreasing decline in relative vote swings by state:


The next step was to do this calculation by counties. For each year, I computed the interquartile range for all 3,000 counties in the United States and also just for the counties outside of the South.


I only seem to have the data at hand back to 1968, which is why this graph only goes back to 1972. As with the statewide swings, there has been a steady decline, in this case much more dramatic in the South. The decline is gradual, but we’re clearly at a lower level of variation now than we were 30 years ago.

What about Congress? In 2008, Zaiying Huang and I published an article in the Journal of the American Statistical Association, estimating the incumbency advantage in Congress and its variation. This was something new. Earlier estimates (including ours) assumed a constant incumbency effect. In our 2008 paper, Zaiying and I estimated an average incumbency advantage of about 8 percentage points, with the individual effect varying from about 0 to 15 percentage points. So, sure, the evidence is that some politicians are more popular than others (even after controlling for district) and, sure, some of that has gotta be constituency service.

But “all politics is local” or even “most politics is local”? No way. Again, I agree that if members of Congress want to stay around, they should remain on good terms with the powers in their states, but I don’t see this as the “local politics” that people are always talking about. Sure, politicians will want to do their best when it comes to constituency service, but that’s not what kept Tip O’Neill, or most members of Congress, in power.