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Did Controversial Roll Call Votes Doom the Democrats?

- November 5, 2010

Did Obama’s ambitious agenda — specifically, health care reform, the economic stimulus, cap and trade, and his vigorous support for TARP (even though he wasn’t president at the time) — contribute to the Democratic seat losses? This has been discussed “here”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/, “here”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2010/11/beware-context-free-election-analysis.html and “here”:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seth-masket/the-price-of-reform_b_755785.html, and Obama addressed the issue himself in his first post-election news conference.

The simplest approach to this question is to compare Democratic incumbents on the ballot who cast votes for these bills to those who didn’t. (The roll call vote data are “here”:http://library.cqpress.com/congress/voterollcall.php?which=rollcall, although they are gated.) For each Democratic incumbent, I counted how many of these four bills they voted for, and then tabulated the average Democratic vote for each group:


Support for these bills appears to have _helped_ rather than hurt. But of course, Democrats who opposed these bills were more likely to represent competitive or even Republican districts, meaning they did worse for other reasons (see “Brendan Nyhan”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2010/11/beware-context-free-election-analysis.html for a similar point). So I modeled Democratic vote share in contested House districts using this count of “yes” votes, plus campaign money in 2010 (from “here”:http://www.opensecrets.org/races/index.php?type=h and “here”:http://reporting.sunlightfoundation.com/independent-expenditures/candidate) and each district’s House and presidential vote in 2008 as controls (“here”:http://www.cqpolitics.com/cq-assets/eap/campaigns/girouxgems/2008PresidentialVotebyCD-CQP.pdf).[1] The model also estimates whether the effect of roll call votes depended on the partisanship of the district, as captured by the 2008 presidential vote. This model predicts a Republican majority of 242 seats, compared to the 244 it currently looks like they are going to win. So the model is pretty good, understating Republican performance only a little bit.

What does this model tell us about roll call votes on these four bills? Simple answer: they mattered. A lot. A Democratic incumbent in the average district represented by Democratic incumbents actually lost about 2/3 of a percentage point for every yes vote. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s for incumbents in districts that voted 63% for Obama.

For Democrats in the least Democratic districts (Chet Edwards of TX or Gene Taylor of MS), the model suggests a loss of about 4% for every yes vote. Does that mean poor Chet lost 16 points on roll call votes alone? No, because he wasn’t a big supporter of Obama’s agenda. But he did vote for both TARP and the stimulus. In fact, virtually every Democratic incumbent on the ballot yesterday supported at least one of these four bills. That support was costly.

What might have happened if vulnerable Democrats hadn’t voted for any of the four bills? I’ll define “vulnerable” as any Democratic incumbent who lost. The graph below shows the balance of power as predicted by the regression, and then what it might have been if everything else was the same but these vulnerable Democrats had voted “no” on everything. The result is stunning:

Roll call counterfactual.png

The Democrats gain back 32 seats, enough to retain control of the House. The margin of error around that prediction crosses the majority control line, so we can’t be fully confident that Democrats would have maintained their majority, even with these predictions. But the difference between the actual result and the counterfactual is itself outside the margin of error, so the effect is large no matter how you slice it.

On one level, this makes sense. You take a tough vote, you pay for it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a tough vote. Indeed, political science research has shown that citizens do hold members accountable for their votes and members who are ideologically out of step with their district are more likely to find themselves out of office. See “this paper”:http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00448.x/abstract (gated) by Stephen Ansolabehere and Philip Edward Jones and “this paper”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=208466 (gated) by Brandice Canes-Wrone, David Brady, and John Cogan.

On another level, it’s puzzling. The outcome of the election was reasonably well “predicted”:https://themonkeycage.org/2010/11/the_forecasts_and_the_outcome.html by fundamentals like the state of the economy and presidential approval. So why the strong effect for roll calls?

I can address some possibilities right away. First, it doesn’t look like it was the money. The effect of the roll calls is the same whether money is in the model or not, and the effect of roll call votes does not depend on the partisan balance in fundraising. Second, the effect of these roll call votes is not simply capturing the effect of the incumbents’ ideology or overall records. I tried adding a general measure of ideology (“DW-Nominate scores”:http://voteview.com/dwnl.htm) along the lines that Brendan Nyhan “suggested”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2010/11/a-first-take-on-election-2010.html, and it’s these big votes that matter. In short, these votes seem an independent force all their own.

So do I think the roll call votes actually cost the Democrats the House? Not necessarily. I would suggest four caveats:

* The effect of roll calls on the vote is large on the seats where it matters, but this is largely because those seats were lost by small margins (all but one of them under 10 points) so a meaningful but not gargantuan roll call effect ends up producing gargantuan changes in seats. (The effect of this simulation on the overall House vote is less than one percentage point.) That’s why we can’t say for sure that the Democrats would have retained control under the “no” vote scenario.

* Even small indiosyncracies that we’re not capturing could prevent the roll call effect from being realized in any particular race. These aren’t causal estimates so much as comparisons of incumbents who were similar on many other factors but nonetheless voted differently on these roll calls.

* As the table above makes clear, there were almost no Democratic incumbents running for reelection who voted against all four bills. So the result is really an extrapolation, and it’s important to be careful about “extrapolations”:http://gking.harvard.edu/files/counterft.pdf. If we just make the vulnerable Democrats vote no on one of the four bills, the gain for Democrats is only 12 seats, not 32.

* Finally, the roll calls may still just be capturing some other aspect of the political climate. In other words, if it hadn’t been the roll calls it might have been something else.

On balance, I don’t think we can say these four big items definitively cost Democrats the majority. But it seems safe to say that they had a big negative effect on Democratic performance, and they certainly didn’t help.

fn1. “Brendan Nyhan”:http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2010/11/beware-context-free-election-analysis.html pointed out that controlling for money is problematic because money itself is endogenous to the roll call votes. He’s absolutely right, but it didn’t seem to make any difference whether the money was included or not, so I erred on the side of controlling for as much as possible.