Institutional Design and Policy Responsiveness in US States

AuthorScott J. LaCombe
Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2023, Vol. 51(2) 210222
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221135554
Institutional Design and Policy Responsiveness
in US States
Scott J. LaCombe
There is signif‌icant disagreement on the moderating role of institutions on policy responsive- ness, yet overwhe lmingly research
in state politics has focused on single institutions. This project leverages a new aggregate scale of state institutions to evaluate if
the collective insti- tutional context moderates the inf‌luence of public opinion on policy. I use a recently released latent scale of
institutional context and f‌ind that high levels of accountability pressure strong ly strengthen public opinionsinf‌luence on policy
for both economic and social policy, while the strength of a states checks and balance system is largely unrelated to policy
responsiveness. These results demonstrate the importance of incorporating aggregate institutional design into our under-
standing of the role of institutions in state politics, and that collectively institutions play a large role in determining how public
opinion is translated into policy.
responsiveness, institutions, representation, states
Questions of policy responsiveness are central evaluating
democratic governance, as few would call a system demo-
cratic if policy was completely unrelated to public prefer-
ences. In the American context, there is a signif‌icant body of
research documenting a correlation between public opinion and
policy (Erikson et al., 1993;Caughey & Warshaw, 2018;Soroka
& Wlezien, 2010;Pacheco, 2013), but a robust debate on
whether responsiveness is largelyconstrainedtorespondingto
the preferences of the wealthy (Gilens, 2012), or that any re-
sponsiveness is largely an artifact of the voting based on partisan
identity, not policy preferences (Achen et al., 2017). This debate
has lead to increased research on the conditions when state
policy is more (or less) responsive to public preferences.
There has been extensive research on whether institutions
can affect the ways in which govern- ments respond to public
opinion (Gerber, 1996;Matsusaka, 2010;Lax & Phillips,
2012;Maestas, 2000;Pacheco, 2013), but the evidence is
decidedly mixed with some f‌inding that certain institu- tions
can moderate this relationship, and others f‌inding no effect.
The focus on specif‌ic institutional reforms, while important,
cannot evaluate how institutions f‌it together and inf‌luence
state politics. Individual institutions may have small effects
that are diff‌icult to consistently capture empirically, and in-
stitutions may have multiple effects that cancel each other
out. An indicator or single scale may be unable to identify
more complex institutional effects.
I propose scholars also use aggregate institutional mea-
sures to understand the role of insti- tutional context in state
politics. This approach mirrors comparative research that
argues single institutions are necessary but insuff‌icient alone
in measuring latent concepts such as democracy (Treier &
Jackman, 2008). A latent scale of institutions along shared
dimensions can incorpo- rate overlapping effects that insti-
tutions may share, and a dynamic measure of institutional
context ref‌lects the time-varying nature of institutional de-
sign. I argue this approach can help scholars understand the
largely unknown collective effect of institutions at the state
I use a recently published measure of state institutional
context along two primary dimensions (LaCombe, 2021).
The f‌irst dimension, accountability pressure, represents
measures the extent to which states have institutions that
either incentivize responding to the median voter or provide
resources for state actors to learn about public opinion, in-
cluding an easy to use initiative process, high levels of
legislative professionalism, and relatively strict campaign
f‌inance rules. The second dimension, checks and balances,
measures the extent to which a state has power separated into
different branches of government versus concentrated in a
single, powerful branch. While there are clear reasons to
Smith College, Northampton, MA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Scott J. LaCombe, Smith College, 201 Wright Hall, Northampton, MA
01063-0001, USA.

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