"The Man Who Never Was": Social-Psychology and Congressional Roll-Call Behavior

Todd Purdum, the national editor for Vanity Fair, penned an article recently titled “The Man Who Never Was.”  In his provocative article, and in numerous subsequent media appearances, Purdum describes John McCain as a “ruthless” and “vengeful” career politician.  Nothing shocking; politics is a contact sport.  But what I thought was interesting is Purdum’s suggestion that these latent qualities explain McCain’s Senate voting record.  Essentially, he argues that it is misleading to label McCain a “maverick” even though he behaved like a maverick.  The argument is similar to the argument in ideal point estimation—that deriving political preferences from roll-call votes is fraught with problems (for example in the presence of strategic voting).  Indeed, Purdum claims that McCain’s opposition to Bush and conservative Republicans on matters such as tax cuts and illegal immigration derived from his antipathy toward Bush (for why, see the 2008 South Carolina primary).  And on the flip side, McCain’s more loyal voting record in the (current) 111th Congress stems from his loathing of president Obama.  In short, as Purdum writes, McCain is “a creature of his emotions.”  Here are some interesting excerpts:

The prevailing question about John McCain this year is: What happened? What happened to that other John McCain, the refreshingly unpredictable figure who stood apart from his colleagues and seemed to promise something better than politics as usual? The question may miss the point…McCain has always lived for the fight, and he has defined himself most clearly in opposition to an enemy, whether that enemy was the rule-bound leadership of the United States Naval Academy, his North Vietnamese captors, the hometown Arizona press corps that never much liked him, his Republican congressional colleagues, the Reverend Jerry Falwell, George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Barack Obama, or J. D. Hayworth. He has always been more of an existential politician than a consequential one, in the sense that his influence has derived not from steady, unswerving pursuit of philosophical goals or legislative achievements but from the series of unpredictable—and sometimes spectacular—fights he has chosen to pick…For most of the time from his first election until his 2000 presidential campaign he was a reliable conservative Republican: pro-defense, anti-tax, anti-abortion, solid on social issues and the culture wars. But he was never a team player, never popular with his Republican colleagues, with whom he publicly quarreled on the slightest pretext, which made him seem more independent. It could just as easily be that he was more selfish.

I think Purdum raises an interesting theoretical puzzle that congressional scholars have generally failed to answer (or at least answer sufficiently): How does social-psychology affect roll-call behavior?  This theoretical question is one that I take-up in a recent paper on Senate voting.  In the paper, I note that senators elected from the House are more reliably partisan than senators elected from the Senate.  Of course, Rohde and Theriault have identified this trend as well in their excellent analysis of the “Gingrich Senators.”  But what I think distinguishes my work is the (social-psychological) theoretical explanation for this trend.  In simple terms, I argue that senators who serve in the House learn a more extreme brand of partisan behavior than senators who bypassed the House.  This learned behavior is either a kind of socialization or the learning of partisan legislative strategies. Though this may seem like a fairly simple argument, it contrasts with conventional thinking about the origins of individual-level partisanship (that partisans are rational actors seeking ideologically extreme policy or reelection).  Of course, as I note in the paper, I see the two theories as working in tandem rather than in opposition.

Overall, though I think Purdum overstates his case a bit, I think his argument—that McCain’s oscillating roll-call behavior stems from an internal psychological state rather than a rational calculus—is plausible and theoretically interesting.  Indeed it dovetails nicely with my aforementioned work.  Of course it’s too simplistic to argue that McCain’s recent trend toward the right has little to do with his challenge from J.D. Hayworth and everything to do with his dislike of Obama.  The “complete the danged fence” ad is clearly an attempt to shore up his conservative credentials.  Still, I think Purdum’s thesis has at least some explanatory power.  To assess this question empirically, we can explore McCain’s party loyalty scores over time (since this is the gist of the argument).  A party loyalty score of 1 indicates a senator or representative voted with his or her party on all contentious votes pitting at least 50% of one party against at least 50% of the other party.  Lower values indicate less loyal partisans.  Here is that data for McCain:

I include the Republican median party unity score and the associate standard deviation for comparability.  The last value “McCain Dist.” is McCain’s distance from the median member of his party.  We can see that McCain had a fairly “normal” partisan voting record by Republican standards from his first session in the Senate (102nd) until the 104th Congress.  In the 105th and 106th Congress McCain was about 7% less loyal than the median Republican.   Then, in the 107th Congress, McCain was 20% (!) less partisan than the median Republican (this is 2 standard deviations below the median).  This, of course, is the Congress immediately following Bush’s election (over McCain) in 2000.  After the 107th Congress McCain remains 1.5 to 2.0 standard deviations beneath the median in both the 108th and 109th congresses.  Then in the 110th McCain returns to the median position in order to boost his conservative credentials for the 2008 election.  Is this definitive evidence in favor of Purdum’s thesis?  Hardly.  But it shows that the empirics suggested by the theory work.  Overall, I think greater work is needed exploring how social-psychological forces affect congressional behavior.  Such explanations are currently out of “mainstream” congressional behavior.