Monthly Archives: June 2010

Is Kentucky a “Southern” state?

This is the first question I got when I told people that I would be moving to Kentucky from the Midwest. Admittedly, classifying a state as “Southern” carries with it certain ideas about the culture of an area, for good or ill.

When I interviewed for my academic position at Centre College, however, I was told the following: “Midwesterners consider us to be a Southern state, but Southerners consider us to be a Midwestern state. We’re kind of in-between.” Another native Kentuckian I met recently put it this way: “Kentuckians have the hospitality of Southerners, but are direct and straight-forward like Midwesterners.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kentucky is technically considered a Southern state. Professor Penny Miller’s Kentucky Politics and Government explains that “Kentucky is and always will be a southern state, tempered by a more moderate politics and a slightly cooler climate” (pg 4).

If the “South” is defined as any former Confederacy state, then Kentucky does not qualify because it did not officially secede from the Union during the Civil War. (There was a “shadow” Confederacy government in the state, though.) Despite not joining the Confederacy, Kentucky’s “heart” was certainly sympathetic. Professor Miller writes: “although Kentucky officially supported the Union, it found its heroes and postwar character in the Confederate cause. One historian noted (if not with scrupulous accuracy) that Kentucky’s was ‘the only government in history to join the loser after the loss'” (pg 25).

Although Kentucky’s “heart” is with the South, with its skepticism and suspicion toward the federal government, Professor Miller argues that Kentucky’s “mind” is usually a little more practical. Given that Kentucky is a comparatively poor state, Kentucky lawmakers see the value of state aid from the federal government. Thus, “Kentucky has long maintained an ambivalent relationship with the federal government, both depending on the national government and resisting its influence” (pg. 35).

This might help explain the findings in previous posts that Kentucky voters are some of the most socially conservative in the U.S., but very middle-of-the-road on economic issues.

Kentucky’s “traditionalistic” political culture

“Political culture” is somewhat of a difficult concept for political scientists to define and measure. The culture of a location does not lend itself well to representing with numbers and statistics. Nevertheless, Daniel Elazar’s tri-fold conception of political culture remains a popular, if somewhat antiquated, method of conceptualization.

Elazar theorized three dominant political cultures in the American states: individualistic, moralistic, and traditionalistic. Citizens in individualistic states view politics as a business-like free-market arena in which the government has purely utilitarian purposes. The government is not concerned with questions about the “good society” but rather exists simply to advance the interests of those who participate. Politics tends to be “dirty” and corruption is often tolerated.

Citizens in moralistic culture states view government as having intrinsic worth. Participation in politics is viewed as a way for people to develop and exercise virtue. Seeking the “common good” is the goal and government is viewed as an active vehicle to help advance the well-being of the society. Politicians are expected to seek the common good and eschew personal gain while carrying out their public duties.

The traditionalistic political culture, on the other hand, is like the moralistic culture in that it sees an active role for the government. Unlike the moralistic view, however, the primary function of government is to secure the maintenance and dominance of an existing social order, oftentimes of a very hierarchical nature. The “elites” of society (family or social class) or those expected to participate and run for office, while the “masses” are largely expected to take a very passive or inactive role toward their government and public affairs.

These three cultures, Elazar argues, originated in the colonization, settlement, and migration patterns of the United States. More information can be found here:

Professor Penny Miller, in Kentucky Politics and Government (1994), argues that “Kentucky presents the classic example of the traditionalistic political culture, allowing an active role for government, but primarily as keeper of the old social order and maintainer of the status quo. Kentucky politics does not foster major political and social change. In that sense, government usually is viewed as a negative force. Political affairs, it is felt, should remain chiefly in the hands of established elites, whose members often claim the right to govern through family ties or social position. A persistent feature of Kentucky’s traditionalistic political culture is a highly personalistic, rather than ideological, brand of politics.”

Professor Miller does allow that there are some elements of the “individualistic” political culture as well, however. She explains that the northern counties bordering Ohio tend to be more economically oriented and inject a healthy dose of “individualism” into the dominant traditionalistic culture.

KY Political Ideology: Part II

A previous post discussed two dimensions of political ideology (social and economic) among Kentucky voters. It was shown that Kentucky is one of the most socially conservative states in the country, but fairly middle-of-the-road in terms of economic policy.

An alternative method for measuring state ideology is promoted by William Berry and his colleages at the University of Kentucky: They create two different state ideology scores: citizen ideology and government ideology. The citizen ideology score is derived from the ideological positions of the members of congress from that state, as measured by interest group ratings. Theoretically, according to these researchers, the ideological position of these representatives can be considered a proxy for those of their constituents. The government ideology score is a combination of measures of the ideological position of the governor and the representatives in the state legislature. This measure indicates the ideological “center of gravity” in the state government in any given year. Each of these measures is represented on a 0-100 scale, with higher values indicating more “liberal” ideologies among the citizenry and state government.

For 2006 (the latest the data is available), Kentucky’s citizen ideology score was 38.9 while its government ideology score was 26.6. The average amongst the 50 states for both measures is right around 50. Thus, by these measures, Kentucky’s citizens are slightly more conservative than the national average (about the same as Alabama, Kansas, Georgia, Tennessee, Montana, and Mississippi). It should be noted that this measure does not distinguish between social and economic policy.

Interestingly, Kentucky’s state government is much more conservative in comparison with other state governments, and more conservative than even its own citizenry. However, this is not overly different from other U.S. states. The average distance between citizens and state governments in this measure for 2006 was 17% on the 100-point scale (either in a liberal or conservative direction). Kentucky boasts only a modest 12-point disconnect between its citizens and state government – and in a more conservative direction.

Political ideology of Kentucky voters…

Andrew Gelman at posts the following analysis of the average economic and social ideological placements of voters in each of the 50 states:

This data comes from a 2000 Annenburg survey so it’s about ten years old, but it’s still useful and informative. The Y axis plots the placement of the average voter in each state along a social ideological spectrum (higher = conservative) and the X axis plots the position of the average voter along economic lines (right = conservative).

We see that Kentucky is right up near the top of the graph, right under West Virginia. Its placement indicates that the average voter in Kentucky is more socially conservative than voters in all other states except for West Virginia, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Interestingly, however, the average voter in Kentucky falls right in the middle in terms of economic political ideology. If anything, they lean slightly to the left on economic policy. In other words, Kentucky voters are no more conservative nor liberal than the average voter in Indiana, Arizona, Virginia, Minnesota, Maine, or even California in terms of economic policy preferences.

Why might this be? For one, Kentucky unfortunately experiences a lot of poverty — especially eastern Kentucky. Poorer voters stand to benefit more from more liberal economic policies. This also might help explain why Democrats do well in elections for state-level offices but Republicans consistently win in battles for national elected office. State politics tend to focus more on economic issues that directly affect citizens while the battles over social policy, often laden with very symbolic frames and implications, often play out at the national level.

In a separate analysis, Gelman also shows that Kentucky Democrats are more socially conservative than Democrats in just about every other state, but again, middle-of-the-road liberal on economic policy. Kentucky Republicans, for their part, are tied with Delaware Republicans for being more economically liberal than Republicans in any other state. KY Republicans are also more conservative than average for Republicans, but only slightly so.

Another interesting observation from this analysis is that Democrats, no matter where they live, are all fairly united in their economic views, but vary considerably in their social policy preferences (Vermont Democrats, the most socially liberal, while West Virginia Democrats, the most socially conservative). Democrats in KY (and WV, OK, AR) are about as socially conservative as Republicans in blue states like NY, MA, CT, and RI. Republicans also vary considerably by state in both their economic and policy preferences.

Finally, while WV and KY Democrats are more socially conservative than NY and MA Republicans, no state’s Democrats are more economically conservative than any other state’s Republicans. Bottom line: while the parties might overlap in their social policy preferences, they are far more polarized in their economic policy preferences.

It’s also important to note that this is a survey of voters. If all citizens, voters and non-voters alike, were included, we might see slightly different results than those posted above.

Basic socioeconomic and political indicators in Kentucky

For those who might be curious, here are some basic demographic statistics of Kentucky residents:

  • 89% white, 8% black, 1% Asian, and 2% Hispanic
  • 17% of Kentucky individuals are below the federal poverty level (49th of all U.S. states).
  • The median household income in Kentucky is $41,500 (47th of all U.S. states).
  • 3% of Kentucky individuals are foreign-born and 4% speak a non-English language at home.
  • 19.6% of the adult population over 25 has not graduated from high school (compared to 15.5% nation-wide).
  • 20% of adult Kentuckians have a bachelor’s degree (compared to 27% nation-wide, and 47th of all U.S. states).

Partisan breakdown in Kentucky:

  • 44% Democrat
  • 40% Republican
  • 13% Independent
  • 3% something else

Ideological breakdown:

  • 15% liberal
  • 47% moderate
  • 39% conservative

Of course, these measures aren’t as accurate as they could be because they don’t break down independents into which party they lean toward. Unfortunately, there’s no follow-up question about which way you lean in this survey.

Now, what is the ideological breakdown amongst the two major parties? Among Kentucky Democrats:

  • 24% liberal
  • 58% moderate
  • 18% conservative

And among Kentucky Republicans:

  • 7% liberal
  • 30% moderate
  • 63% conservative

All in all, Kentucky is a fairly white state with lower levels of education and higher levels of poverty than the national average. There are more Democrats than Republicans in Kentucky, but the Democrats are fairly moderate while the Republicans are very conservative.

Soure data: America Fact Finder (U.S. Census) and 2004 Voter News Service exit poll, N=1,075, weighted data.

“Rand Paul’s ideas crash into reality”

This is the title of a rather blistering editorial by the Lexington Herald-Leader criticizing the inconsistency of Senate candidate Dr. Rand Paul’s political views. It’s available at:

The argument of the editorial can be summarized in the following excerpt:

“At the junction of principle and pragmatism, Paul denounces big government and its costs and intrusiveness, but depends on the little things that big government does for him.”
The editorial goes on to say: “In fairness, many of us are guilty of wanting the benefits of something — whether it’s board certification or full campaign coffers — without paying the price.”
I have three general thoughts regarding this observation by the Herald-Leader’s editorial board:
First, in the 1960s, political scientist Phil Converse conducted a series of intensive personal interviews to learn about the political opinions and ideologies of the American public. Specifically, he wanted find out if people processed political thoughts according to ideologies, or in other words, if Attitude A and Attitude B in most people are “consistent” with one another. According to Converse, a person who wants to cut taxes but at the same time wants to extend government welfare benefits is showing a “lack of constraint” in their political attitudes, and thus does not think ideologically. Turns out that only about 3-5% of Americans were able to base their policy preferences on a particular ideology and demonstrate a reasonable amount of “constraint” in their political attitudes. Thus, it is no small surprise to me when most Americans, including Dr. Paul, report seemingly inconsistent policy preferences. Of course, it could be argued that someone running for the U.S. Senate should be part of that 3-5% who Converse labels “ideologues”… but that’s a debate for another day.
Second, this same general phenomenon can be observed in the mass public. Most Americans, when asked, say that they are worried about the national budget deficit and want to trim the budget and cut spending. Yet when pressed further to indicate whether or not they would support cutting spending for a specific budget item (highways, education, military, welfare, etc.), the vast majority of Americans are hesitant to say “yes”. Thus, most Americans want a smaller budget, but they don’t want to cut anything specific from the budget.
Third and finally, Dr. Paul’s sentiments can be seen as a reflection of Kentucky’s political culture and history. Professor Penny Miller, in her textbook of Kentucky Politics and Government, writes: “Kentucky has long maintained an ambivalent relationship with the federal government, both depending on the national government and resisting its influence. This dependence-resistance [has] characterized Kentucky’s political past” (pg. 35). It could be argued that Dr. Paul is simply channeling the political culture and values of the state that he is campaigning to represent.

Sometimes Better Not to Vote?

The Iowa City Press-Citizen published the following editorial on June 8, 2010, primary election day in Iowa:

Studies by political scientists show party identification stands out as the single most important factor by which voters choose between candidates.

In primary elections like the one today, however, voters are blocked from using that key shortcut and asked to make the harder choice of deciding between candidates within the same party. That leaves three types of voters today:
• Group 1: Voters who know next to nothing about the candidates and the issues and make decisions completely at random,

• Group 2: Voters who know something about the candidates and the issues but don’t think they have enough information to make a worthwhile decision, and

• Group 3: Voters who think they are informed enough to make an educated decision.

The people who know almost nothing are doing neither themselves nor the community any favors by going to the polls today.

But most of the people reading this editorial are either in Group 2 or Group 3 — even though they may think they are in Group 1. They may not think they have enough information to make an informed decision, but those same studies suggest that they really do.

Whenever people use any decision-making factor — even something as simple as “when in doubt, vote anti-incumbent” — they have enough of an understanding of what’s at stake to participate competently. And even when people vote completely at random, the results usually cancel each other out.


I’m pleased to report that the editorial did a pretty good job of accurately summarizing some key findings from political science research over the past few decades. They’re right: partisanship is the key determinant of vote choice in U.S. elections. Democrats usually vote for Democrats and Republicans usually vote for Republicans.

They’re also right that people can and regularly do use shortcuts (“heuristics”) to help them make voting choices. Research in this area has shown that when people use shortcuts, they make a “correct” voting decision about 75% percent of the time. (In that study, voting “correctly” meant picking the same person using limited information as you would when you had access to full information about the candidates and campaign.) This finding is from Lau and Redlawsk 1997:

And finally, Page and Shapiro (1992) are to be credited with the “voting at random doesn’t matter because it tends to cancel out in the aggregate” argument:

I think the more interesting question, however, is the Press-Citizen’s argument that those who know nothing and completely guess (Group 1) should stay home and not vote. This is certainly somewhat of an elitist and anti-democratic argument to make, that only those who are well-informed should be voting. What do you think? Is it better for people to vote even if they have no idea what they’re voting about? Is a lower turn-out in an election a good thing if those who are voting are the ones who truly care?