A Sum of Its Parts: Party Fit and Party Change in the U.S. House

Published date01 September 2021
Date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(5) 464 –477
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211006824
One of the most prominent patterns in contemporary
American politics is the transformation of the major parties
in the U.S. Congress since the 1970s, as exhibited in their
increased ideological polarization (McCarty et al., 2008),
transformation on social issues like civil rights, abortion, and
the environment (Adams, 1997; Carmines & Stimson, 1989;
Shipan & Lowry, 2001), and increased polarization on a
wider range of issues (Layman & Carsey, 2002). Several
works have assessed what factors have contributed to the
transformation of the parties, including the impact of social
groups, party activists, gerrymandering, campaign money,
and the exercise of institutional powers by party leadership
(e.g., Cox & McCubbins, 2005; Karol, 2009; McCarty et al.,
2008; Theriault, 2006). Closely related to our paper, Thomsen
(2017) analyzes how the strategic career choices of party
members have contributed to an increasingly polarized U.S.
House. She finds that ideological fit with the party impacts
career decisions, as increasingly polarized parties in the
House contributes to the disappearance of moderates—that
is, fewer moderate candidates and more moderates retiring
from Congress.
Our paper uses a different approach to assess the central
tendency of the party and analyzes the impact of party fit on
retirement decisions that contribute to and reinforce party
change in the U.S. House.1 In short, as the centrality of the
party shifts over time, members decide whether to remain in
office or retire depending on whether they are toward the
core of the party. Those career decisions therefore reinforce
and contribute to changes in the parties. Our paper makes
several significant contributions. We analyze bill cosponsor-
ship behavior in the U.S. House from the 93rd to 110th
Congresses and view the party as a social network in which
members are connected if they both cosponsor the same bill,
which has both theoretical and empirical benefits that we dis-
cuss below. Only briefly stating two benefits here, analyzing
cosponsorship (a) provides a more thorough picture of inter-
actions among party members, which we take as “defining
the party” and indicating who are most central in the party,
and (b) constructs an empirical measure of party fit that
accounts for the individual choices of members and how the
party is an aggregation of those choices.
Our paper has two main goals. First, we descriptively
show how the cosponsorship networks of the parties in the
U.S. House have changed since the 1970s. Our analysis
shows that cosponsorship behavior can indeed provide a use-
ful metric to describe the party, as it is related to but distinct
from roll call voting behavior and (revealed) ideology.
Second, we analyze the impact network centrality has on
member retirement from office, showing that low centrality
1006824APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211006824American Politics ResearchLee and Go
1University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA
Corresponding Author:
Daniel J. Lee, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 S. Maryland Pkwy,
Box 455029, Las Vegas, NV 89154-9900, USA.
Email: dan.lee@unlv.edu
A Sum of Its Parts: Party Fit and Party
Change in the U.S. House
Daniel J. Lee1 and Sean M. Goff1
Previous research has noted the transformation of the American parties since the 1970s, as exhibited in their increased
ideological polarization and transformation on social issues like civil rights, abortion, and the environment. We contribute
to the literature on party change by theoretically stressing the decentralized and individualistic nature of American parties,
while using a measure of party change that is based on legislative behavior beyond roll call voting. Our paper uses social
network analysis to analyze the parties from the 93rd to 110th Congresses, utilizing bill cosponsorship to define connections
between members. Our analysis illustrates how the core of the party, that is, who are most central in the cosponsorship
network, has changed over time. We find evidence that party centrality influenced retirement decisions, thereby reinforcing
and contributing to party change.
political parties, party change, legislative behavior, cosponsorship

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