Elections have consequences. When the members of Congress change significantly, we expect to see different kinds of policies make it to the President’s desk. We also expect to see different members of Congress making headlines. In this post, I predict who the new key players will be in the House and the Senate, based on the election results from last week. I won’t look at the party leadership, though they are influential. Rather, I will look at those Congressmen whose position in the political spectrum will potentially make them decisive figures in policy debates over the next two years.
My tool of choice is the DW-NOMINATE score. Two innovative political scientists, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, came up with this method to rank Congressmen from left to right based on who they’ve voted with over their Congressional careers. Though no assumptions about political parties have been made in generating these scores, generally the more negative your score, the more liberal your voting record is, and the more positive your score, the more conservative your voting record.
DW-NOMINATE scores are only available as of January of this year, so there are omissions for anyone who came into Congress after January (the most notable being Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts). I’ve assumed that any incumbents would have the same score this coming Congress as last Congress. If newly elected officials had previously been a member of Congress (which was the case for several new Senators), I used their most recent score. For the remaining newly elected officials, in the Senate, I made an educated guess about where they would fall, and in the House, I assumed they would be distributed in the same way as the re-elected incumbents from their party (admittedly a dubious assumption, but one that makes this a lot easier). For those races that have not been decided, I assumed that the candidate in the lead right now would win.
Predicting outcomes in the House after an election like this comes with a lot of uncertainty because we do not have a voting record on all the new representatives and we do not know how the changing party dynamics in the House will effect individual legislators’ votes. Here is a look at the distribution of Representatives in the House at the beginning of 2010 (the solid line) and the beginning of 2011, according to my projections (dashed line).
I would not put too much stock in the projected distribution of Republicans above. Since there were so many new Republicans, and I assumed that they were distributed roughly the same as the incumbent Republicans, the result is relatively more people on the right in a similar distribution as before. There may be reason to believe that these new Congressmen are actually further to the right than their Republican counterparts because the political atmosphere of the past year leaned to the right. However, there are also some new representatives in moderate districts that could be further to the left than the Republican incumbents this year. In either case, we should see changes in the distribution of scores on the Republican side that I could not anticipate here.
The more interesting result is on the left, where there were only 10 representatives to which I could not assign a position, out of almost 200. It seems that the right flank of the Democratic party in the House has shrunk considerably, while the left flank is largely intact, meaning that moderate and conservative Democrats have been ousted while most liberal Democrats were able to hold onto their seats. (By moderate Democrat or moderate Republican, I mean middle-of-the-pack among Democrats or Republicans, not moderate in a general sense.) The space between the right-most Democrat and the left-most Republican has grown larger. It is historically unusual for there to be no overlap between the right-most Democrats and left-most Republicans, but that has been increasingly the norm this past decade, and it appears that that trend will continue unless a handful of new Republicans end up leaning pretty far to the left.
Political theory suggests that the representatives in the House whose preferences are the most influential in determining policy, other than party leadership and certain powerful committee chairs, are those that are near the median voter. The basic idea is that, in order to pass a bill through the House, at least the median voter and everyone to his or her left or to his or her right must approve of the bill. This means that the preferences of the median voter are particularly important in determining which bills pass the House. Since there are 435 representatives in the House, the median voter is #218 when we list all of the representatives according to their DW-NOMINATE score. Since there is some error in these estimates and Congressmen will not always align themselves exactly the same way, it’s more informative to look at those Congressmen who are within five or so positions of the median. At the beginning of this year, the Congressmen in this position and their scores were:
- 213. Rick Boucher (D-VA), -0.198
- 214. Jim Costa (D-CA), -0.197
- 215. Mark Arcuri (D-NY), -0.195
- 216. Ike Skelton (D-MO), -0.190
- 217. Bill Foster (D-IL), -0.189
- 218. Gene Taylor (D-MI), -0.186
- 219. Kathy Dahlkemper (D-PA), -0.185
- 220. Michael McMahon (D-NY), -0.180
- 221. Henry Cuellar (D-TX), -0.179
- 222. Collin Peterson (D-MN), -0.175
- 223. Jerry McNerney (D-CA), -0.172
Those are some moderate, maybe even somewhat conservative, Democrats. There are quite a few Democrats on this list that lost their seats this year. The following is a list of the projected median voters in the upcoming session of Congress. Here, as in the graph above, I assume that new Republican Congressmen are distributed in the same way as the Republican incumbents, so some new Republican Congressmen are assumed to be to the left but most to the right of those listed below. No newly elected representatives are included among those listed here because I do not have a reliable way to estimate new representatives’ DW-NOMINATE scores:
- 213. Peter King (R-NY), 0.448
- 214. Thad McCotter (R-MI), 0.451
- 215. Mike Simpson (R-ID), 0.453
- 216. Leonard Lance (R-NJ), 0.455
- 217. Frank Wolf (R-VA), 0.457
- 218. Bill Young (R-FL), 0.457
- 219. Don Young (R-AK), 0.469
- 220. Chris Lee (R-NY), 0.474
- 221. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), 0.475
- 222. Tom Latham (R-IA), 0.478
- 223. Glenn Thompson (R-PA), 0.481
Those are all moderate Republicans (defined the way I used it above: middle-of-the-pack for Republicans). According to their scores, they are more conservative than the Democrats listed above are liberal. Some could argue that a party being in power has a moderating effect on that party’s members, so these Congressmen may not vote as conservatively as they have previously. Even if that is true, the relative positions of Congressmen would not change, and which Congressmen are close to the median voter should not change, either. Therefore, a given policy probably only has a chance to pass the House in this upcoming year if it receives the support of at least a few of the Congressmen listed above.
The Senate projections were easier to make with confidence because there were only a few candidates elected to office who had not previously served, and with each of those candidates, it was possible to roughly guess where they would fall ideologically. Here is a look at the distribution of Senators at the beginning of 2010 (the solid line) and the beginning of 2011, according to my projections (dashed line). (Note: The bin-sizes and the scale for scores are different in the Senate model, so percentages on these graphs and DW-NOMINATE scores between the two chambers are not directly comparable.)
There was not as much turnover in the Senate as in the House, so the distribution is not drastically different from before, but the changes were consequential. Some moderate and liberal Democrats are now gone, and some moderate and more conservative Republicans have taken their place.
The median voter is the key player in the House because the House uses a majority-rules system. The median voter is not significant in the Senate because the filibuster requires 60 votes rather than a majority of 51 to pass legislation. This means that the 60th member is the key vote in the Senate. Since Democrats are a majority, the key vote is the 60th member from the left. Last year, since there were 59 to 60 Democratic Senators, usually the Democrats just needed to secure the votes of all of their own party in order to pass legislation. This meant bargaining with Senator Ben Nelson from Nebraska, or maybe hoping that the Republican Senators from Maine, Sen. Collins or Snowe, would cross party lines.
The next two years will be different. Democrats need to keep their entire party in line in order to get to 53, so where will the next 7 votes come from?
- 54. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), 0.045
- 55. Susan Collins (R-ME), 0.068
- 56. Scott Brown (R-MA), no score yet but he’s probably around here
- 57. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), 0.249
- 58. Richard Lugar (R-IN), 0.254
- 59. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), 0.326
- 60. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), 0.355
Like with the House, there is some uncertainty here and Senators will not align themselves in exactly the same way for every piece of legislation. If Reid cannot pull together all the Democrats and the 7 Republicans shown above, he may be able to swing the votes of one or two of the following Senators:
- 61. Thad Cochran (R-MS), 0.364
- 62. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), 0.371
- 63. Pat Roberts (R-KN), 0.387
In addition, two new Senators, former Attorney General Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and former Governor John Hoeven of North Dakota, campaigned like party-line Republicans but may be further to the left as Senators given their backgrounds and constituencies. Of the new Senators, these two appear to be the most likely to vote for compromise legislation.
In sum, the political landscape will be much different over the next two years. The Congressmen whose votes are most important in getting legislation to the President’s desk are much further to the right than they used to be. Let’s put it this way: Lamar Alexander is the new Ben Nelson. And Harry Reid thought the last two years were tough…