Are Career Politicians “Out of Touch” with Constituents?
On Tuesday, Republican voters in South Carolina head to the polls to elect a candidate for the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Lindsey Graham. Graham, who’s held the position since 2002, is among the candidates. If Graham wins, it will continue the national trend of establishment Republicans fending off conservative primary challengers. Spoiler alert: Graham will probably win.
It’s no secret that conservative Republicans are less than thrilled with Graham’s job performance. During the primary campaign, the main line of attack against Graham is the charge that, after twelve years in Washington D.C., he has morphed into a “career politician” and is therefore “out of touch” with voters in South Carolina. One of Graham’s main challengers—businesswoman Nancy Mace—lobbied this charge in the recent GOP debate, stating “career politicians are the problem.” Following this line of attack, in campaign ads she states that one of her goals is to “fix the mess created by career politicians.”
Let’s cut through the lofty campaign rhetoric. Are career politicians “out of touch” with their constituents? I feel a chart coming on…
Needless to say, this is an empirical question, one that’s easy to examine with readily available data. First, we need data on constituents’ preferences. Political scientists frequently use the two-party vote for president in the two most recent presidential elections. For example, Obama got just 44% of the vote in South Carolina (it’s a “red state”). In contrast, he got 51% in Ohio (a “purple state”) and 60% in California (a “blue state”). Second, we need data on “career politicians.” I use the number of two-year terms served in the Senate. And lastly, we need data on the voting behavior of U.S. senators (the dependent variable). DW-NOMINATE scores are the standard in political science. Higher values indicate a conservative voting record, lower values a liberal voting record.
If career politicians become “out of touch” over their career, as the rhetoric suggests, we would expect to observe a steep positively sloped line. If, on the other hand, career politicians become more responsive over time, we would expect a steep negatively sloped line. If there’s no difference in the voting record of “career” and “new” senators, the line will be relatively flat.
Here’s what the data show: there’s absolutely no effect! Indeed, we can see in both figures that the relationship between state partisanship, terms in the senate, and a senator’s voting behavior is very nearly flat (statistically speaking, we cannot reject the null hypotehsis of “no relationship”). In other words, the data show that career politicians represent their constituents in exactly the same manner as “new” politicians. Notably, Figures 1 and 2 show this to be true all the way out to twelve two-year terms (you know, when career politicians should be really out of touch).
So, the rhetoric about career politicians doesn’t match reality. We shouldn’t be surprised by this result. In fact, it’s easy to turn the “career politician” attack on its head. What some might call “career politicians” others might call “faithful public servants.” Indeed, Graham is very likely to win the Republican primary on Tuesday, and while his detractors will dismiss the underlying reasons for his victory, the simple fact is that Graham votes in a manner highly consistent with his conservative constituents. In a previous blog post, for instance, I noted that Graham has actually become more conservative (not more liberal) during his career. Simply put, “career politicians” exist in the first place because voters like them reward them for faithfully representing them.
In addition to the theoretical problem with the career politicians charge, there are various of studies which debunk its underlying the causal dynamics. In political science, we call this behavior “shirking” (defined as members of Congress deviating from their constituents’ preferences). On this topic I have a published paper (with co-blogger Josh Huder and Dan Smith) looking at one element of shirking: whether ballot measures help educate members of Congress as to the position of their constituents. Indeed, this is exactly what we find; ballot measures induce members of Congress to align with their voters’ policy preferences. In short, lawmakers are interested in information about what their constituents want (ballot measures are one source) and career politicians are likely to be pretty well informed in this respect.
Political scientists have also examined shirking by studying lawmakers who are retiring at the end of their term. As a theoretical matter, these members are free to vote their personal preferences rather than their constituents’ preferences. However, studies have shown–overwhelmingly–that even exiting members vote in line with their constituents (see for example this study by Carson et al.). In sum, even under the extreme condition where members of Congress don’t have to worry about reelection, we still find consistent evidence that they faithfully represent their constituents.
Of course, the “symptoms” of career politicians include greater polarization and gridlock. If only we had new lawmakers (so the logic goes) all of Congress’s problems would be solved. In reality, however, the exact opposite is true: it’s the replacement of old members with new members that has caused much of Congress’s polarization and gridlock. According to political scientist Sean Theraiult’s excellent book on party polarization, about 2/3rds of the increase in Congress’s polarization is due to member replacement while only about 1/3rd is due to adaption over time.
Finally and relatedly, career politicians can actually have beneficial effects. In Artists of the Possible, political scientist Matt Grossman studied policymaking in the post-war Congresses. Among his findings, Gorssman notes that policy change is facilitated by deep, long-term connections forged among veteran lawmakers. As note notes:
I argue that policy change results from long-standing productive ties among central policymakers. Institutionalized entrepreneurs, actors with a political and policy skill set as well as an institutional position and ties, are responsible for the bulk of domestic policy change.
In sum, while Congress is very unpopular, and perhaps deservedly so, it’s important to keep the real problems in focus. In various posts (see for example this post on Rick Perry’s calls for a “citizen legislature”), we’ve tried to debunk the simplistic explanations for how to “fix” Congress. While it may seem intuitive, career politicians are not the problem. Yes, it may make voters happier in the short-term, but that “new Congress smell” won’t make the institution run better.
Figures 1 and 2 were produced from a regression analysis interacting the number of terms served in the Senate and the two-party vote for president in the past two elections. Both figures plot the interaction term (specially the marginal effect of a 1% increase in the Democratic candidate’s share of the two-party vote for senators from their first to twelfth term). Figure 1 contains a linear interaction effect while Figure 2 uses a binary indicator for every two-year term (allowing the estimates to vary in any functional form). Each figure was estimated with data from the 93rd Congress to the 112th Congress. I also examined the data back to 1877; the results are not sensitive to the time period under examination.