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Substance and Change in Congressional Ideology: NOMINATE and Its Alternatives


Poole and Rosenthal's NOMINATE scores have been a boon to the study of Congress, but they are not without limitations. We focus on two limitations that are especially important in historical applications. First, the dimensions uncovered by NOMINATE do not necessarily have a consistent ideological meaning over time. Our case study of the 1920s highlights the challenge of interpreting NOMINATE scores in periods when party lines do not map well onto the main contours of ideological debate in political life. Second, the commonly used DW-NOMINATE variant of these scores makes assumptions that are not well suited to dealing with rapid or non-monotonic ideological change. A case study of Southern Democrats in the New Deal era suggests that a more flexible dynamic item-response model provides a better fit for this important period. These applications illustrate the feasibility and value of tailoring one's model and data to one's research goals rather than relying on off-the-shelf NOMINATE scores.

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