Who Punishes More? Partisanship, Punitive Policies, and the Puzzle of Democratic Governors

Date01 March 2022
Published date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(1) 3 –19
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920987078
People say to me, “well Ann, what does that say about
Texas that we’ve got the largest prison system in the
world?” . . . And I say, it says if you commit a crime in
Texas we’ve got a place to lock you up. . . . If you do the
crime, you’re going to do the time.
—Ann Richards (D-TX) campaign ad1, 1994
I can be nicked on a lot, but no one can say I’m soft on crime.
—Bill Clinton2 (D-AR), 1992
In 1992, then-Governor of Arkansas Bill Clinton ran for
president. Throughout the race, he was determined to
seem tough-on-crime, a strategy that culminated in him
flying back to oversee the execution of a mentally dis-
abled man in Arkansas during the campaign (Mauer
2016). Clinton was not alone: across the country,
Democratic governors like Ann Richards of Texas and
Mario Cuomo of New York presided over vast expan-
sions of the prison system and extensions of punitive
laws (Ambar 2018; Perkinson 2010). An example of
Democrats moving to the right on crime is illustrated
poignantly by the tough Violent Crime Control and Law
Enforcement Act of 1994 and its strident Democratic
supporters, especially Bill Clinton and Joe Biden (Mauer
2016). However, despite this anecdotal evidence of
Democratic support of more punitive policy, we do not
yet know the extent of this support and how distinct
Republicans and Democrats were and are in their prefer-
ences on criminal justice in the states.
This question — how punitive were and are Democratic
governors? — is especially important because of the vast
expansion of our criminal legal system. In the past few
decades, few institutions in the United States have grown
faster than the carceral state: in 2016, over 6.5 million
Americans were under some form of correctional control,
in prison, jail, on parole or probation, up from 2 million
only three decades ago (Kaeble and Cowhig 2018; The
Pew Center on the States 2009). This massive rise in the
number of adults under correctional control has been
matched with commensurate increases in the money
shifted to this priority, as corrections is now the fifth-larg-
est category of state spending, after education, public
welfare, health and hospitals, and highways (Kyckelhahn
2014). States have prioritized criminal justice in both
their policy and their budgets, as the public became more
987078PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920987078Political Research QuarterlyGunderson
1Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, USA
Corresponding Author:
Anna Gunderson, Department of Political Science, Louisiana State
University, 208-B Stubbs Hall, Baton Rouge, LA 70803, USA.
Email: agunderson@lsu.edu
Anna Gunderson1
The growth of the carceral state over the last few decades has been remarkable, with millions of Americans in
prison, jail, on parole or probation. Political science explanations of this phenomenon identify partisanship as a key
explanatory variable in the adoption of punitive policies; by this theory, Republicans are the driving force behind
growing incarceration. This article argues this explanation is incomplete and instead emphasizes the bipartisan coalition
that constructed the carceral state. I argue Democratic governors are incentivized to pursue more punitive policies
to compete with Republicans when those Democrats are electorally vulnerable. I test this proposition using a series
of regression discontinuity designs and find causal evidence for Democrats’ complicity in the expansion of the carceral
state. Democratic governors who barely win their elections outspend and outincarcerate their Republican counterparts.
This article highlights Democrats’ role as key architects in the creation of vast criminal justice institutions in the states
when those Democrats are electorally vulnerable.
Democrats, governors, criminal justice, state politics and policy, incarceration
Who Punishes More?
Puzzle of Democratic Governors
Partisanship, Punitive Policies, and the
4 Political Research Quarterly 75(1)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
punitive and demanded more punitive policy action as a
result (Beckett 1997; Enns 2016; Scheingold 1995).
The expansion of carceral institutions has not escaped
scholarly attention, with studies examining distinct out-
comes like incarceration rates, reentry programs, and
felon disenfranchisement laws, among many others
(Behrens, Uggen, and Manza 2003; Jacobs and
Carmichael 2001; Percival 2016; Smith 2004). Within
these studies, partisanship is often the focus, as
Republicans are theorized to contribute to the growth and
expansion of the carceral state (Beckett 1997; Smith
2004). However, growing attention has been paid to the
presence of strange bedfellows in encouraging the devel-
opment of punitive institutions, like women’s advocacy
groups (Gottschalk 2006) and Democrats (Hinton 2016;
Murakawa 2014). The bipartisan consensus that gave rise
to a variety of carceral institutions at all levels of govern-
ment is the focus of some studies chronicling the expan-
sion of the carceral state (e.g., Gottschalk 2008; Hinton
2016; Kohler-Hausmann 2015; Murakawa 2014), but it is
not clear how complicit Democrats were in the expansion
of punitive institutions at the state level. I argue Democrats
are key architects of the carceral state in those election-
years in which Democrats barely win, and that electoral
competition is an essential conditioning factor in whether
and how partisanship influences punitive outcomes.
I look to the states for variation in carceral policies and
argue electorally vulnerable Democratic governors will be
more punitive than their Republican counterparts to com-
pete for voters, as crime is a popular electoral issue. I spe-
cifically analyze three outcomes of the carceral state
— corrections budgets, incarceration rates, and prison
admission rates — to examine whether Democratic states
outspend and outincarcerate Republican states. I use
regression discontinuity (RD) designs to test this claim
using election returns from 1982 to 2016. I find Democratic
gubernatorial candidates who barely win increase correc-
tions spending by approximately $15 per capita and find
some tentative evidence they increase both incarceration
and prison admissions rates as well. These results high-
light the bipartisan coalition that created the carceral state.
Electorally vulnerable Democrats were at the forefront of
cementing corrections as a key policy priority for the
states in the last three decades. How should we evaluate
punitive policy adoptions knowing Democrats were key
architects of the carceral state? This is especially impor-
tant considering one in thirteen Americans is now under
some form of correctional control (The Pew Center on the
States 2009): how did we get here?
Carceral State Expansion and
Electoral Competition
Social scientists studying the growth of the carceral state
over the last four decades offer a variety of explanations,
including the punitive impulses toward the racially and
economically marginalized and the strength of conserva-
tive politicians (Beckett 1997; Caldeira and Cowart 1980;
Garland 2002; Greenberg and West 2001; Jacobs and
Helms 1999; Smith 2004; Stucky, Heimer, and Lang
2007; Wacquant 2009). However, empirical evidence
around these theories has been mixed, with inconsistent
evidence that either economic or racial inequality — or
Republican political power — has expanded the carceral
state (Jacobs and Carmichael 2001; Smith 2004).
This study takes on a different mechanism to explain
the rise of punitive policies, concentrating on the interac-
tion between partisanship and electoral competition. I
argue Democratic governors are incentivized to prioritize
punitive crime policy in an effort to win over voters. I
focus on Democratic governors specifically as they are
the state leaders of their parties and possess significant
autonomy in the creation and administration of policy
(Barrilleaux and Berkman 2003; Beland and Oloomi
2017; Fredriksson, Wang, and Warren 2013; List and
Sturm 2006). This is not to suggest that state legislators3
do not face similar pressures, but that governors may be
uniquely sensitive to those pressures from their position
of party leadership.
Existing research suggests electoral competition has
two key effects on politicians’ behavior. First, electoral
competition is theorized to produce more liberal policy
outcomes, as individuals in lower socioeconomic classes
become a larger part of the electoral constituency and
demand policies in line with their interests (Barrilleaux
and Berkman 2003; Holbrook and Van Dunk 1993; Key
1949). Officials will seek growth-promoting policies to
appeal to swing voters when they are electorally vulner-
able (Besley, Persson, and Sturm 2010; Griffin 2006).
Second, beyond liberal policies, electoral competition
broadens the kinds of constituents politicians must cater
to. Closer races force politicians to forge broader coali-
tions of support and promise higher rewards to their
supporters (Barrilleaux, Holbrook, and Langer 2002).
Similarly, electoral pressures encourage politicians to
be more responsive4 to constituent interests to maintain
their winning margin (Griffin 2006). This article bridges
the gap between economics, state politics, and the poli-
tics of punishment, to propose a significant policy gov-
ernors have both the means and the motivation to
influence: crime.
Over the last few decades, the amount of citizen and
media attention paid to crime has skyrocketed as politi-
cians harnessed punitive public attitudes toward crime to
pursue a variety of carceral policies (Beckett 1997).
Indeed, most troubling is the association between
decreasing crime rates and increased public attention and

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