Friday, May 17, 2013

Data as Destiny Part 1 and 2

There's enough grad student dropout in me to appreciate a good data set when I see one, and today I have two that explain a few things about politics national and Iowan.

One of my more vivid grad school memories was seeing one of my professors put down a nationally known scholar visiting Iowa for a guest lecture as a "popularizer," meaning the guest had an ability to condense a dissertation into a soundbite and get on TV, thus jeopardizing academic elitism and exclusivity. The University of Virginia's Larry Sabato is definitely a popularizer, but I don't consider that a bad thing.

Sabato looks at census data this week to study each state's "nativity rate."

No, not that Nativity. Definitely not that Nativity.

Sabato's "nativity rate" is the percentage of a state's residents born in the state.

His main fascination with the data is that his own Virginia, over the last century,has taken a huge drop from one of the most "native" states, over 90% in 1910, to one of the least at just under 50. Which explains a lot about the evolution of Virginia from a state that, at the height of the civil rights era and the old Byrd machine, closed its public schools - ALL public schools - for a year rather than integrate, into a state that twice voted for Barack Obama.

However, Sabato finds:

...a weak negative correlation (R = -.235) between a state’s nativity percentage and the percentage of the vote Obama received in the 50 states plus Washington, D.C. The analysis also tells us that nativity rates explain very little of the variation in Obama’s performance from state to state. In other words, a state with a low percentage of native-born residents was not clearly more likely to support the president’s reelection bid.

Me, I find this data set interesting as a non-native Iowan, born in the far off exotic land of Wisconsin. The top nativist state looks to me to be either 1) the racially polarized, lagging behind dregs of the deep South and Appalachia, with post-Katrina Louisiana always a demographic outlier; and 2) places that get very cold in the winter.

But what does it mean politically? There's very red places and very blue places on both ends. What I'm seeing is stability and strong parties in the most nativist states, and more political volatility in the states with the most in-migration. Just anecdotally - I dropped out of grad school before I got regression analysis tattooed on my brain, but then more of you are reading this post than would have ever read my dissertation - the states with the most newcomers are more likely to have swung one way or another recently. You'd likely a higher percentage of independents, or something like a hot primary or an out of nowhere winner. You even see that in high-growth precincts in a very nativist state like Iowa.

The data is 20 years old, but it would be interesting to layer this, or the 1990 equivalent, against Ross Perot's percentages. He did very well in those rootless places.

What I see in the more nativist states is strong party structures, longer incumbency, institutional stability. There's exceptions on both ends, of course.

The other interesting data set comes to us via Brad Plumer at the Washington Post. Filipe R. Campante of Harvard Kennedy School and Quoc-Anh Do of Singapore Management University find that “isolated capital cities are robustly associated with greater levels of corruption.”

That is, if your state capital is your largest city, you're less likely to see corruption than if the center of government is a downstate backwater.

Who tops the charts? Springfield, Illinois, of course, where they had to build a new wing of the state prison just to house ex-governors.

"The authors found that state capitals located in remote areas tend to receive less newspaper and media coverage. What’s more, voter knowledge about the goings-on in these isolated statehouses tends to be lower. And, as a result, voter turnout for state elections tends to be depressed."

Iowa, home of the $3 gift law, is in the clear here with our largest city as the state capital. However, the study just looks at 1976 to 2002. Illinois is still safe, sending two more governors to prison. But Kent Sorenson's presidential campaign shenanigans may move Iowa a notch or so.

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