My dissertation research examines the behavior and homestyle of representatives of plurality districts. Plurality districts, those without a racial/ethnic majority, are the new face of racial and ethnic diversity in the United States. Plurality districts currently outnumber black-majority districts and Latino-majority districts; in fact, plurality districts are growing at the faster rates than any other ethnoracial district type.
My research examines how U.S. House members change their provision of representation as their electoral districts transition from majority-type districts to plurality districts. I argue that that the shifting racial/ethnic demographics of electoral districts should change the representation-provision strategies of a legislator. To win reelection, legislators must appeal to the members of multiple racial/ethnic groups in order to build interracial/interethnic electoral coalitions. Legislators of plurality districts face additional hurdles to reelection because a) by definition, they are not co-ethnics with the majority of their constituents, and b) they must appeal to multiple racial/ethnic groups in order to be reelected. In these circumstances, it can be difficult for a legislator to credibly signal that they understand the political needs and preferences of multiple racial and ethnic groups. To overcome these barriers, I argue that representatives of plurality districts are more likely to employ symbolic communication, spend more time with constituency engagement (e.g. town hall meetings, attending events, visits to the district), expend more resources on casework and constituency services, and procure more funds for the economic health of their district.
To empirically test my theory, I employ a variety of rigorous quantitative and qualitative analyses. These varied sources of evidence enable me to paint a picture of legislator behavior in the following three domains: political communication, constituency services, and district funding.
Constituency Service: I examine the changes in the diversity of a U.S. House member’s staff as their district transitions from a majority-type district to a plurality district. With greater ethnic/racial diversity in the district, legislators should have a more diverse staff can aid in the ability of the office to appropriately represent its constituents. To measure the diversity of office staffs, I use U.S. Congressional Disbursement data, extract the names of paid staffers, and assign race/ethnicity using a Naïve Bayes classifier, and finally calculate the ethnic/racial fractionalization of the staff using the Herfindahl Index. I find that Republican and Democrat members of Congress whose districts transition to plurality districts focus their diversification efforts differently—Democrats tend to alter their leadership staffs, whereas Republicans concentrate on constituency services staffs. These findings suggest that legislators are keenly aware of the changing demographics of their electoral districts and many choose to alter the composition of their staffs in response.
Political Communication: I examine the quantity and tone of the 1.3 million Tweets sent by U.S. House Members from 2011 to 2017. Specifically, I focus on the explicit and implicit racial messages, as a means of gauging whether outreach strategies and messaging changes in light of their evolving constituencies. To study legislators’ messaging strategies, I use U.S. House members’ tweets from 2011-2017.Preliminary evidence indicates that as legislators make this transition, their messaging profiles do change. However, the target group for these messages vary by partisanship. Democrats in plurality districts focus on messaging Asian American communities, whereas their Republican counterparts focus mentioning Latinx communities. Republicans members of Congress who transition to plurality district increase the probability that they will send a message related to immigration, whereas their Democratic counterparts do not. Additional nuance is provided when I examine tone and sentiment of immigration-related messages. Conditional on sending a message that mentions “illegal immigration” (overwhelmingly sent by Republicans), legislators who transition to plurality districts demonstrate an increase in the positive tone of the illegal immigration messages compared to those legislators who transition to majority-white districts. Conditional on sending a message that mentions “undocumented immigration” (overwhelming sent by Democrats), legislators who transition to plurality districts demonstrate an increase in the positive tone of the undocumented immigration messages compared to those legislators who transition to majority-white districts. The results thus far indicate that legislators respond to the changing composition of their districts when they communicate with their constituents.
District Funding: The third empirical chapter analyzes how district funding changes as legislators transition to plurality districts. My theory predicts that a legislator will seek more funding for their district as it becomes more diverse in an effort to provide more diffuse benefits for which they can credit claim. I examine the total amount of funding, as well as the amount of funding that is of interest to racial and ethnic minority groups (e.g., housing, education, public assistance, etc.) as a proportion of the overall funding received. This is especially relevant for districts that transition from majority-white districts to plurality districts. As the non-white population in the district increases the proportion of minority interest funding should also increase. Preliminary results using FAADS data suggest that plurality districts do receive more funding than white-majority districts.
Research Design: Across all of these chapters, I use both qualitative and quantitative evidence to answer my research question. For my quantitative analyses, I use two sets of conservative modeling strategies—within-estimator fixed effects regressions, as well as a pre- and post- redistricting analyses. Both sets of analyses measure the effect of switching from a majority-type congressional district to a plurality congressional district and eliminate the legislator as a confounding variable. The pre/post-redistricting design takes the analysis one step farther and helps me overcome the traditional difficulties in investigating causal inference in political institutions research by using 2013 U.S. House redistricting as the foundation of a quasi-experimental design. This analysis allows me to explore the causal effect of serving a plurality district by directly measuring the change in behavior that occurs as a legislator transitions from a majority-type district before redistricting to a plurality district after redistricting.
I use case studies, interviews with district office staffers, and fieldwork to validate my quantitative findings. The case studies focus on newly-transitioned plurality districts whose legislators remained in office through the transition. I track the observable changes before and after redistricting in the political topics salient to a given district, the types of issues addressed by the legislator, and the way that the legislator and their staff interact with the given district. These newly transitioned plurality districts are then compared to districts that stay majority-type. The cases are picked from both red and blue states, with both Republican and Democratic legislators.