Laurel Harbridge

Assistant Professor of Political Science


Laurel Harbridge’s work focuses on how elections, institutions, and policy are connected in the United States Congress.  Her recent research explores declining bipartisan cooperation in Congress, changes in party strategy and the ramifications of these changes for the responsiveness of members to their constituents and for policy formation. 

Current Research

Strategic Partisanship. Harbridge explores the decline in bipartisan cooperation in the U.S. House of Representatives since the 1970s, exploring what changes in bipartisanship tell us about party strategy. She argues that the level of bipartisan cooperation is a direct reflection of party strategy. Depending on the degree of electoral homogeneity and the presence of institutional constraints, majority party leaders will pursue a legislative strategy that either emphasizes bipartisan or partisan legislation. Using bill cosponsorship coalitions and roll call votes, she examines how the construction of the roll call agenda has changed over time, moving from an emphasis on legislation with bipartisan support to legislation with partisan support. In addition to overall levels, this project also explores issue specific changes and whether a change in strategy to focus on partisan conflict affects issue attention. Finally, she considers how the prioritization of partisanship on the floor despite bipartisanship in cosponsorship coalitions affects representation.This project has implications for our understanding of polarization, party influence, policy outcomes, and congressional representation.

Compromise vs. Compromises: What Does “Bipartisanship” Really Mean to Americans? In joint work with Neil Malhotra of Stanford University and Northwestern graduate student Brian Harrison, Harbridge examines public support for bipartisanship in Congress, and its implications for party polarization, via a set of survey experiments. Public opinion surveys regularly assert that Americans want political leaders to work together and to engage in bipartisan compromise. So why has Congress become increasingly acrimonious even though the American public wants it to be “bipartisan”? Many scholars claim that this is simply a breakdown of representation. Harbridge and colleagues offer another explanation: Although people profess support for “bipartisanship” in an abstract sense, what they desire procedurally out of their party representatives in Congress is to not compromise with the other side. To test this argument, they conduct three experiments in which they alter aspects of the political context to see how people respond to parties (not) coming together to achieve broadly popular public policy goals. In all cases, Harbridge and colleagues find that citizens’ proclaimed desire for bipartisanship in actuality reflects self-serving partisan desires. Consequently, members of Congress do not have electoral incentives to reach across to aisle to build costly bipartisan coalitions. 

The Policy Consequences of Motivated Information Processing Among Partisan Elites. In joint work with Sarah Anderson of The University of California, Santa Barbara Bren School, Harbridge examines how partisan biases by elites manifest in policymaking. Drawing on insights from the theories of disproportionate information processing (where an abundance of information leads to ignoring some information signals and relying too heavily on others) and motivated reasoning (where information that confirms a partisan predisposition is given more weight), Harbridge and Anderson develop a series of observable implications. These are then tested on budget outcomes. They argue that motivated information processing would cause Democrats to make large cuts to the budget and Republicans to make large increases surprisingly often as necessary accuracy corrections after pursuing their directional goals. They also argue that effects should be stronger on issues closely aligned with the parties and further away from elections. This work highlights the importance of partisan control in policymaking.

Selected Publications

Harbridge, L., with N. Malhotra. 2011. Electoral incentives and partisan conflict: Evidence from survey experiments. American Journal of Political Science 55(3): 494–510.

Harbridge, L., with S. Anderson. 2010. Incrementalism in appropriations: Small aggregation, big changes. Public Administration Review 70(3): 464–74.

Harbridge, L., with D. Brady and J. Ferejohn. 2008. Polarization and public policy: A general assessment. In Red and Blue Nation? Consequences and Correction of America’s Polarized Politics, vol. II, ed. P. S. Nivola and D. W. Brady. Washington D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

Harbridge, L., with D. Brady and D. Rivers. 2008. The 2008 Democratic shift. Policy Review. Hoover Institution, 152: December 2008 & January 2009.