- by Patrick B
This is Part 2 in an on-going series. View part one here.
My hypothesis going into my Senate research was wrong. I assumed margin of victory would be the biggest driver of an ideological voting record in the Senate. Here is what I found:
- Strong ideological tendencies in Senate candidates are rarely driven by a mandate from the voters (i.e. a big win).
- Not all Senators from fairly safe states vote are staunch party liners.
- State make up is not the number one determiner of an ideological voting record.
The biggest driver of how ideologically a Senator votes appears to be the year they were elected in. Looking at 2008-2012 election years, candidates elected in 2010 were more ideologically extreme than the other two years. This is likely because off-year elections have lower turnout, which favors Republican candidates. Conversely, high turnout increases the Democratic candidates chance of winning:
[538's analysis] square[s] with the general notion that higher turnout is helpful to Democrats, on balance. If you take the average between them, it suggests that a 1-point increase in turnout would improve the Democrat’s margin in the popular vote by a half a percentage point, accounting for other factors.
In 2010 the normalized sum of the ideological rank of all Senate candidates elected that year (including incumbents) was nearly double that of 2012. (Note: All ideological ranking data is from DW_Nominate. DW_Nominate develops ideological ranks based on actual votes on bills. For new senators I used Congressional records or approximated their ideological rank from similar politicians. A negative value indicates a liberal ideological lean, a positive value indicates a conservative ideological lean. The scale is from -1 to 1.)
|Year Elected||# Elected||Ideological Sum||Normalized Sum|
The rise of Tea Party Republican candidates in the last two years has led to many of the newly elected GOP Senators to be far more conservative than incumbent Republicans (see Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Ron Johnson, Ted Cruz vs. That Cocharn, John Hoeven, John
McCain). Similarly, some of the most liberal Democrats were elected in 2012 (e.g. Tammy Baldwin, Mazie Hirono, Deb Fischer, Mark Udall). It is important to note that most liberal senator scores at -0.614 whereas the most conservative comes in at 0.941 (and is one of 7 GOP senators scoring above 0.614). So it is fair to say that GOP is more extreme in their ideology than the Democratic party.
This begs the question, are the Senators that vote along ideological lines doing so because they have a mandate from the voters? It would appear that the old saying “if you need to ask, you can’t afford it” can be paraphrased to “if someone is debating if you have a mandate, you don’t have one”. However, the way Senators govern seem minimally impacted by having mandate or not. (The left and right columns have been normalized to the number of senators that won by each percentage amount or greater. Terms for each senator only account for the number of times they were elected to a six year term).
|# of Terms||Won by >%||Ideological Score|
The data shows that most ideologically conservative Senators are likely to win by 50-54.9% or greater than 65%. Senators who fall in the first range include Pat Toomey (R-PA, 0.684), Ron Johnson (R-WI, 0.679), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ, 0.83). Democrats who fall in this range include Tammy Baldwin (D-WI, -0.614), Barbara Boxer (D-CA, -0.494), and Mark Udall (D-CO, -0.494). Note most of the ideologically-hopped up Senators are in their first term. Apparently youthful energy (or old-hand apathy) is a real thing.
Additionally, long serving Senators from consistently Republican states like Alabama are likely to be very ideological (e.g. Wyoming’s two senators with a average ideological score of 0.536 and five full terms between them).
In net, low turnout or impediments to voting vary results for Senate elections widely from year to year. While incumbency brings its own complacency and disconnect from the voters, new Senators are more likely to vote in a partisan way than old dogs. Making it easier for people to vote – perhaps by making Election Day a holiday – would likely make election results more consistent year to year than the current method. For now we are left electing Senators with vastly different electorates depending on the year.
There are a lot more questions to cover in future posts. But to be sure, this a highly partisan time in our history – and it’s on the upswing.