Launched in the spring of 2015, the Shifting Terrain project documents and seeks to explain recent major transformations in U.S. national and state politics and public policymaking. The project addresses several overarching questions:

  • In recent years, how have ultra-conservatives reorganized and gained new leverage over and through the Republican Party, pushing that party much further to the right than standard analyses of public attitudes would lead us to expect?
  • How have advocacy groups, constituency organizations, and donor networks shifted in and around the Democratic Party?
  • In what ways have the reorganized U.S. right and left influenced policymaking and contributed to asymmetric partisan polarization, government gridlock, growing public distrust, and rising economic inequality?


Researchers are analyzing data from archives, organizational web sites, field observations of events and meetings, and interviews with key political leaders and activists. Moving beyond the usual emphasis on individual-level electoral, attitudinal, and demographic data, the project explores shifting arrays of organizations over time, documents elite careers within and across organizations, and focuses on organized consortia of political donors (not just individual billionaires and millionaires).


Investigations are led by Harvard Professor Theda Skocpol, working in collaboration with Columbia University Professor Alexander Hertel-Fernandez; Dr. Vanessa Williamson of the Brookings Institution; and Harvard graduate students in Government Jason Sclar, Angie Bautista-Chavez, and Sarah James.

Latest news

New Koch

New Koch

January 25, 2016

The billionaire brothers are championing criminal-justice reform. Has their formula changed? Jane Mayer uses Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez's research to discuss how the Koch brothers "have established centralized command of a 'nationally-federated, full-service, ideologically focused' machine that 'operates on the scale of a national U.S. political party'" for the ...

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How the Right Trounced Liberals in the States — Feature piece in Democracy Journal

Conservatives have mastered the art of cross-state policy advocacy, while liberal efforts have fizzled. Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez write about "the conservative triple whammy," organizational innovations in conservative political strategy, and the failure of liberals to counteract these trends for Democracy Journal.

The Republican Party’s 50-State Solution — Feature piece in The New York Times

Thomas B. Edsall featured Shifting Terrain's research in a piece for the New York Times comparing the state-level political strategies of liberals and conservatives, arguing that conservatives have successfully mobilized where liberals "have left behind little more than a litany of abandoned acronyms."