Congressional behavior in the Trump era

 Image source:  NRO
Image source: NRO

By Jordan M. Ragusa

No doubt one of the most discussed political issues in the last two years is whether and how Donald Trump’s presidency is changing the dynamics of American politics.  Trump has been called a “disruptive force,” the “ultimate outsider,” a “norm violator,” and a “drainer of swamps,” to name a few.  Julia Azari even compared Trump to another president who upended the status quo: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On this question, both academics and non-academics have focused the bulk of their attention on the electoral implications of Trump’s rise to power.  In particular, commentators have spent considerable time debating whether Trump’s presidency is creating new dynamics in the behavior of voters.

But what about members of Congress? 

Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, a Trump supporter or opponent, it is the behavior of our lawmakers as they respond to Trump’s presidency that will play a decisive role in shaping the future of American politics.

In a recently published paper, Lauren Johnson, Deon McCray and I explored why Republican members of Congress supported or opposed Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 campaign. Before he took office, a number of commentators were focused on the so-called #NeverTrump movement, a term referring to Republican elites who refused to endorse Trump during the campaign. 

In the paper we point out that during the campaign, there were diverse—and often contradictory—explanations of the #NeverTrump movement offered by politicians, pundits, and journalists. After cataloguing these explanations, we distilled them into four theoretical categories: (1) policy preferences, (2) identity, (3) electoral motivations, and (4) establishment dynamics. 

We then tested these popular explanations by compiling data on every Republican member of Congress’s public position on Trump’s candidacy.  In two analyses, we explored the direction of a lawmaker’s position (support Trump vs. oppose Trump) as well as the intensity of that position (based on the timing of their announcement). 

In Figure 1 below, we present the significant predictors of Trump’s 2016 support, according to our analyses.  In the figure we order the significant predictors from top to bottom based on their absolute effect size.  A variable that “matters most” is at the top, while those at the bottom are significant but have comparatively smaller effect sizes.  Green dots indicate the predictor decreases a lawmaker’s #NeverTrump probability while red dots indicate the predictor increases a lawmaker’s #NeverTrump probability.

Figure 1 – Why Republican Members of Congress Joined the #NeverTrump Movement

Identity determines which Republican lawmakers were #NeverTrump

Our main finding is that two factors in the identity category best explain a lawmaker’s position on Trump’s candidacy.  In particular, the strongest determinants of a Republican’s endorsement were their religion and sex.  According to our results, Mormon and female Republicans were more likely to oppose Trump while non-Mormon and male Republicans were more likely to support Trump.  This finding mirrors research on the importance of lawmakers’ personal characteristics, which often receive less attention in the literature on legislative behavior than they deserve.

Notably, these findings dovetail with a number of studies on the behavior of voters in 2016. For example, recent work from Valentino, Wayne, and Oceno explores the role of gender in the 2016 election, and finds that sexism was a key force in both the campaign and the decision to vote for Trump.  Likewise, research by Mutz shows that issues threatening to white Americans played a key role in the election while a paper by Hooghe and Dassonneville finds effects of both racial resentment and anti-immigrant sentiment.

It is also notable that the effects of religion and sex dwarf the effects of a dozen electoral variables.  Despite the tendency to view lawmakers as single-minded in their focus on reelection, our results indicate that electoral motivations were the weakest determinants of the #NeverTrump movement.

Establishment and conservative Republicans were Trump supporters

In the analyses we also find the establishment/anti-establishment divide in the GOP was an important factor in the #NeverTrump movement, but in a perhaps surprising way.  Although Trump publicly criticized the establishment of his own party, and despite the popular narrative that Trump’s candidacy was a “revolt” against traditional Republicans, our results indicate that lawmakers with establishment voting records and those in leadership positions were more likely to back Trump.  Stated another way, it was the anti-establishment that opposed Trump.

Although our results are perhaps counterintuitive, they mirror research on the factional nature of the modern Republican Party, and are also broadly consistent with the claim that party elites coordinate their endorsement decisions in pursuit of collective electoral success.

Lastly, we examined how a Republican lawmaker’s ideology shaped their position on Trump’s candidacy.  We note that there was considerable disagreement in the popular explanations as to whether conservatives would be more or less likely to back a candidate like Trump. 

Despite the claim of many that Trump is not a “traditional” conservative, we find that conservative members of Congress were more likely to support Trump.  In the aftermath of the election, we note that this mirrors Arizona Senator Jeff Flake’s concerns in his book “Conscience of a Conservative,” where he suggests conservatives may be on a “bumpy ride” with Trump.

Implications for Congress

In sum, whereas most observers are focused on the electoral dynamics of Trump’s presidency, an equally, if not more, important question concerns the behavior of members of Congress vis-à-vis the 45th president.  Interestingly, in our research on the behavior of GOP lawmakers in 2016, we find that identity was a powerful force in Republicans’ endorsement decisions, with a lawmaker’s religion and sex key influences on Trump’s Republican support and opposition in Congress.  We also find—to the surprise of many—that establishment and conservative Republicans were more likely to back Trump during the campaign.

What are the implications of these findings for our understanding of Congress?

First, it is perhaps surprising that the two identity variables had the largest effects in our analysis while the electoral variables had the smallest effect.  Although we tend to think of lawmakers as “single minded” in pursuit of reelection, to use David Mayhew’s famous words, that does not seem to be the case here: We find quite the contrary.  While it is easy to over-interpret the result of any one study, perhaps members of Congress are unable to escape the allure of identity politics—much like the electorate—and thus Trump’s presidency is tilting the scale in terms of the broader determinants of legislative behavior.

Second, if the GOP is in the midst of a realignment, as many have claimed, identity may be the cleavage that will shape the future of the party.  As former Speaker John Boehner said in a recent interview: “There is no Republican party.  There’s a Trump Party.”  Relatedly, it is notable that establishment and conservative Republicans represented Trump’s strongest supporters in 2016.  Combined, these results suggest that the most influential members of the party—those who could shape the direction of the party—are either in agreement with Trump or being co-opted by him. Notably, this has implications for a number of items beyond the future of the Republican Party.  Perhaps most importantly, these findings may be of concern to those who wonder whether the GOP will be a bulwark against Trump’s norm violations and/or constitutional transgressions.  Yet as with most research on emerging dynamics in American politics, only time will tell.

Jordan M. Ragusa is an associate professor of political science at the College of Charleston, where he directs the college’s American Politics Research Team and is a research fellow in the Center for Public Choice and Market Process.

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