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The Dakota Effect

- May 1, 2008

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If you count a state’s congressional delegation not as the number of senators and House members currently representing that state but rather as the number of members of Congress who grew up there, you immediately encounter a striking fact: Easily the two best represented states, in terms of the number of native members of Congress per capita, are North and South Dakota:

bq. “No other state even comes close to North Dakota’s 3.7 exported members of Congress for every 400,000 current residents, nor, for that matter, does any other state even come close to South Dakota’s 1.6 exported members per 400,000 current residents. Moreover, … in both North and South Dakota representation begins at home: every member of the two Dakota delegations was home-grown. Thus, in terms of all members of Congress (that is, natives of a state plus exports to other states) rather than just exports, the very same pattern holds: North Dakota, with 5.6 members of Congress per 400,000 residents, and South Dakota, with 3.2, stand out far above the rest.”

That’s from a piece by my colleague Garry Young and me, in the latest issue of PS: Political Science & Politics (HERE, gated). Garry and I decided to have some fun with these factoids, so we summoned up our social science tools to help us answer two basic questions about the “Dakota effect”: Why, and so what?

To address the first question, we tested an array of different explanations. Could it be, we wondered, that the Dakotas’ wholesale exportation of future senators and representatives to other states is simply an artifact of a broader depopulation of the Dakotas? Or how about the idea that because it’s too cold for children in the Dakotas to go outside and play and because they have no professional sports teams to sit in front of the TV and watch, by process of elimination they stay in their rooms and read and ultimately become little political science wonks? Or perhaps the superior intelligence of Dakotans (who, year in and year out, lead the nation in mean SAT scores) means that when they move to other states they automatically end up atop the gene pool and succeed in whatever pursuits they attempt, including winning political office? Our statistical analyses revealed that even when we took all these potential explanations into account, the Dakota effect survived. It seems that there’s just something about Dakotans that makes people want to elect them to Congress.

But what difference does this difference really make? To answer this question, we reanalyzed data from an earlier study of congressional earmarks for instituitions of higher education, adding one new predictor to the explanatory model: whether or not the district to which the earmarks were allocated was one of the Dakotas. The answer?

bq. “During the period in question, the coefficient for the Dakota Effect was approximately $2.6 million per congressional district. This means that, with all the other factors that affected earmarks for higher education held constant, an extra $2.6 million was earmarked for each of the Dakotas’ two congressional districts – a tidy $5.2 million bonus for the Dakotas in all. And of course these were only the funds that Congress earmarked for institutions of higher education – a small slice of Congress’ overall discretionary spending pie.”

Other states, we concluded, have much to learn from the oft-maligned Dakotas:

bq. “Taking their cue from the results reported here, states should begin providing college tuition support for promising high school seniors who vow to become political science majors at out-of-state schools. To be sure, this could prove costly in the short term, but these costs should be recouped in the medium to long run when the awardees get themselves elected to Congress while retaining their gratitude and deeply ingrained allegiance to their state of origin. To be sure, some states may not boast a critical mass of the wily stock capable of getting elected to Congress as outsiders – but many such states, e.g., Iowa, seem bent in any event on the ill-considered opposite strategy of encouraging their residents to stay at home.”

(Breaking news: Our tongue-in-cheek analysis doesn’t seem to be playing well in South Dakota. A reporter for the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader apparently visited the Cambridge University Press website, read the first page of the article, took umbrage at our slurs on the Dakotas, and contacted former South Dakota Senator George McGovern, who hadn’t read the article either but was only too willing to say some negative things about it. In one of those quotes, Senator McGovern alleges that Garry and I don’t know anything about South Dakota. I can’t speak for Garry, but of all the criticisms my work has ever received, this one cuts the deepest, for I am a veritable walking encyclopedia of South Dakota lore. For the Argus-Leader story, with the McGovern quotes, click HERE.)