Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Democratic Republic Requires Trust, and Hence Transparency, from Congressional Candidates

Updated: Edited for grammar and to spell John Adams' name properly.


In my role as political analyst for MTN, I sat down on August 14 with Republican House candidate Ryan Zinke and asked him about releasing his full military records. In case you missed the interview, you can watch it here. I was promised during that interview, and afterwards by Zinke spokesperson Shelby DeMars, that I—along with the AP and Chuck Johnson of Lee Newspapers—would receive the complete set of records. I was also told that this would take some time.

It is now October 22, 2014, and the general election is less than two weeks away. In last night’s House debate in Great Falls, John Adams of the Great Falls Tribune specifically asked state senator Zinke about a fitness report in 1999 that one other former Navy Seal suggests indicates some problems with Zinke’s performance. Zinke did not provide a clear answer as to what was in that report, and suggested that Adams “was unjust, unfair, and shameless” for asking the question.
Adams’ request was not shameless.Watch the exchange here.

I have, thus far, believed that the Zinke campaign would in good faith produce those records in a timely fashion. And I'm hopeful that they will still release those records. And yet, I still have not gotten what was promised. I, like John Adams, am beginning to wonder why.

But, if I may suggest, the problem is bigger than Ryan Zinke and his record as a Navy Seal. The problem hits directly at democratic discourse and accountability in an era when fewer and fewer candidates running for public office have extensive records in elected office. Yet, they ask US to credit them with those experiences as evidence they are suitable for service in higher public office. I believe Ryan Zinke, Steve Daines, John Lewis, and Amanda Curtis all should release as much of their employment records as possible to the press and the public. These experiences, they claim, will make them excellent public servants. If that’s the case, then we—the public who choose them—should be able to make the judgment ourselves of those records.

I think there are three very good reasons for why we should expect transparency from our congressional candidates in this regard.

First, such transparency is not unusual for those seeking public employment of any kind. Take, for example, the information I have to generally produce when applying for academic jobs (both public and private). As a job candidate, I have produced the following for employers:

1.       Transcripts (Graduate and undergraduate)
2.       A copy of my diploma
3.       My cv (an academic version of a resume)
4.       References and letters of support from those references
5.       Student evaluations of my teaching
6.       A teaching statement
7.       A research statement
8.       Publications

Then, if I’m lucky enough to get a campus interview, I often have to give a research presentation and a teaching demonstration. All of this is to demonstrate that my academic credentials are real and that I am competent as a teacher and researcher. 

And, I should say, that a request for my transcripts from Wisconsin or Indiana can be filled within 24 hours. Not more than two or three months.

In running for Congress, candidates use their records to bolster the case for why voters should vote for them and that they deserve the trust of voters. Candidates who have served in elected office often have extensive public records that voters can evaluate and pick apart—and even if they do not, the opposition is more than happy to do it for the voters.

Ryan Zinke’s House campaign biography begins with the headline: Montana’s Proven Leader. He highlights his accomplishments in nine paragraphs. One paragraph details his service in the Montana Senate. Five paragraphs focus on his “distinguished record” of military service. It is clear that this service as a Navy Seal is critical to how he would like voters to evaluate him.

Congressman Daines’ campaign slogan is “More Jobs, Less Government” and much of his campaign pitch focuses on his experience in creating jobs—an experience he says begins with cutting government regulation and red tape. In his campaign biography of seven paragraphs, one full paragraph and the portion of another details his business experience. Only one full paragraph, by contrast, details his experience in Congress. Congressman Daines says he’s a job creator. How exactly did he create jobs during his time at RightNow and how many of those jobs were created in Montana, in the United States, and in other countries?

Democratic candidates John Lewis and Amanda Curtis are not off the hook here. John Lewis spent his professional career working as a staffer for Senator Baucus, and on his campaign webpage, he notes that “working for Senator Max Baucus and with Montana veterans, John spearheaded legislation giving businesses incentives to hire veterans.  What began as John’s idea to better serve veterans is now the law of the land.” We, as voters, should have access to the memos staffer Lewis wrote which demonstrate how central he was to this veterans legislation. Lewis should also ask that Senator Baucus release his personnel file so we can see the evaluations he received as a part of the Senator’s staff in Washington and here in Montana. And Amanda Curtis, who touts her experience as a teacher, should demonstrate to us whether she excelled as a teacher or not.

The main point of all of this is not that Ryan Zinke was a bad Navy Seal, that Steve Daines didn’t create jobs as part of an important hi-tech company, that John Lewis wasn’t a competent Senate staffer, and Amanda Curtis wasn’t a great teacher. The point is the voters deserve to have the ability to evaluate those claims for themselves absent a narrative constructed by the campaign, just as my fellow political scientists have the right to examine my academic record to help them decide—without my own spin—that I am the right person or not for their institution. We should be able to determine how distinguished a military career is, what makes job creator successful, and the whether the influence a Senate staffer has on legislative outcomes is substantial.

A second reason why these records should be made available is the nature of who is running for Congress. In the past, the common path for folks running for higher office was to spend considerable time working their way up through a series of public offices, building a public record that voters could evaluate. As our elected officials are increasingly coming from outside the public sphere or, if they do serve in the public eye, with much shorter tenures in office, we need to be able to assess those experiences. At least with public officials, there is a clear public record for all to see. Without a public track record, voters are left to the rhetoric of the candidates—who are clearly not unbiased—to make sense of those private employment experiences. At the very least, they should give us as much access to private records that we can get from those in public employ. 

Finally, in an era of political polarization, it is even more important that voters have access to unbiased sources of information to help them make informed political judgments outside the spin room. Instead of blindly accepting what candidates or their opponents tell you, it is even more important to have metrics with which voters can independently judge the records, temperament, and fitness of their candidates for public office. And, even more important, an independent and free press must have access to these records to do just that. 

Transparency helps us make better decisions and to have more trust in the democratic process. One of the most important New Deal reforms, in my judgment, was the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission which required publicly traded companies to release particular information in a timely and regular fashion about the company’s operations and budgets. This information allows investors far more confidence when they participate while at the same time providing a somewhat level playing field for investors. This trust has allowed the creation of mutual funds and a retirement system funded largely by investments in the stock market. Shouldn’t we demand the same kind of accountability and openness of those who wish to serve in public office? Shouldn’t we demand more of and from them as investors in the democratic marketplace?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Scotland Votes Nae!

The Queen still rules over Scotland this morning.

Here's a nice handy map of the Vote in yesterday's Independence Referendum in Scotland that I whipped up in Stata:



Darker blue indicates more favorable vote for independence. I'm trying to do some aggregate analysis, but need to gather some demographic variables. One quick note, though: the correlation between a Yes vote in a council and the percentage Catholic in that council is .61. All the due cautions about drawing conclusions about individual behavior using aggregate level data apply.....

Monday, September 8, 2014

Traveling with Denny: What does it mean to be a legislator? And what is effectiveness?



More on my travels for Battle for the Big Sky today. This time, my first day with Congressman Rehberg--less than a week after I had traveled to Big Sandy to sit down with Senator Tester in his workshop.

Read about it here.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

New blog on Battle for the Big Sky

I just wrote up a new blog about my experience writing about the 2012 Montana Senate race.

You can read it here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ryan Zinke Takes A Bunch of Out of State Cash. Should we care?

One of the lines Democrats have been using to bash Ryan Zinke is suggesting that by taking a large percentage of his individual contributions from out-of-state donors he won't represent Montana's interests in the House of Representatives. In short, out of state money equals viewpoints which are automatically detrimental to the interests of Montana and Montanans.

I've never quite understood this rationale because it assumes that there is a singular interest that is Montanan and that Montanans agree on what that looks like. In my forthcoming book, Battle for the Big Sky (due out in October 2014), I argue that what is distinctive about Montanans is the connection they feel to the land and to place. That said, Montanans can and do disagree with how the land should be utilized--a dichotomy I roughly describe as "extractionists" versus "protectionists". Even that perhaps is too blunt, because even those who believe there should be additional energy exploration on public lands certainly would agree with the notion that some land should be protected from such exploration and use. Certainly, campaign contributions from outside Montana reflect these different viewpoints, no?

I mean, I get the rhetoric and why it's powerful: Montana has a complicated relationship with the "other"--meaning the federal government and large multinational corporations seeking to exploit Montana in pursuit of their own interests. But merely taking campaign contributions from folks who live in other states and suggesting that it means you won't or can't put the interests of Montana first seems somewhat silly to me. Let's face it: It's only a special interest if it's not your interest. If it's YOUR interest that's being advanced, then it's just and worthy, right? My main point is I am justifiably leery of the rhetorical and political exercise suggesting that money raised from outside the state is somehow impure.

Putting that aside, there is the empirical question to consider. How unusual is it for Ryan Zinke to accept nearly three-quarters of his individual contributions from individual contributors living outside Montana? For candidates running for Montana's lone House seat, it turns out quite unusual. If Zinke were running for the United States Senate, alternatively, he'd fit right in.

Using data compiled by the fine folks at the Center for Responsive Politics, I put together the table below listing the percentage of out-of-state contributions received by every Republican and Democratic Senate and House candidate running from 2000 through 2014. These data are based on all individual contributions of $200 or more. Click on the table below.



You'll find that Zinke's contribution patterns are clearly an outlier here. The only other House candidate that comes close is Nancy Keenan, the Democratic House nominee in 2000 who raised 64 percent of her individual contributions from non-Montanans. More typical is the roughly third of contributions raised out of state by Congressman Rehberg during his six House campaigns. I should also note that it is pretty normal for House candidates to raise the bulk of their money from within their district or state--clear exceptions are House candidates with national profiles either because of their party leadership positions, ambitions for higher office, or those who have consciously sought to become spokespersons and advocates for particular ideological causes within their parties (Representatives Alan Grayson and Michele Bachmann come to mind here).

The bulk of campaign contributions for U.S. Senate candidates, however, tends to come from outside of Montana's borders. Again, this pattern is not unusual--individual senators have far more power than any individual congressman, they have more constitutional responsibilities of a national nature, and as such, they tend to draw far more donor interest nationally. It is also the case that poorer states tend to rely more heavily on outside funding to pay for competitive and expensive Senate races. In 2012, both Senator Tester and Congressman Rehberg drew about 80 percent of their contributions from individuals living outside the state.

But Senator Max Baucus was the champ when it came to contributions from beyond Montana. In 2008, facing token opposition, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee received 90 percent of his individual contributions from non-Montanans. Clearly, lots of donors were interested in bending the ear of the man responsible for the arcane ins and outs of the federal tax code and trade policy.


So yes, Zinke's contribution patterns are unusual both in the recent history of Montana House races and the patterns we expect to see generally in house races in other states. But does it really matter? I'm not convinced that it does. And, I'm even less convinced that Democrats are really genuinely interested in protecting Montana from the evils of outside influence on Montana's elections when their own Senate candidates have long benefited from money from non-Montanans to fund their own election efforts.

I think more problematic from the perspective of candidate Zinke is the possibility he has trouble connecting with Montana donors--which tells us a different story altogether about his ability to convince voters to support his candidacy come Election Day. Zinke's success with Montana donors exists in stark contrast to Steve Daines' success in raising money at home--both in his 2012 House race and in his current Senate campaign.


Zinke's reliance on out of state donors might indicate he has trouble closing the deal with Montanans when he meets them--but that tells us much more about his qualities as a candidate than it does about him supporting interests that are not Montana's. That, I think, is the key lesson to be drawn from the contribution patterns observed above.


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Battle for the Big Sky: The Director's Cut

In order to celebrate and build interest in my book on the Tester-Rehberg Race (Battle for the Big Sky, to be published this fall with CQ Press), I'm going to release material that I just couldn't get into the final version. Please check out my post at the blog for the book, Battle for the Big Sky. You can access the blog here.

Stay tuned for more in the weeks and months ahead!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Who is the “most” conservative House candidate? The data--not so much.



Sometimes data illuminates and makes patterns easier to see. Other times, data do not illuminate and instead confuse. When it comes to understanding the ideologies of the Republicans running for the House here in Montana, it seems to obfuscate more than clarify.

Mike Brown over at the Western Word opines thusly about the upcoming Republican House primary:
“Republicans across Montana can be heard saying, “Candidate, candidate on the ballot, who is the purest conservative of them all.”

One of the problems with primary elections is they are, by their very nature, low information environments. This makes it hard for voters to distinguish clearly the ideologies of the candidates. I said in a recent interview with Chuck Johnson that endorsements matter a lot in this type of environment because they provide easy cognitive shortcuts for voters to make decisions.

One possible way to help sort this out is by looking at empirical data. I propose using endorsements and the state NOMINATE values generated by Boris Schorr and Nolan McCarty to put three of the House Republican candidates (Else Arntzen, Matt Rosendale, and Corey Stapleton) on a left-right spectrum to decide who is the “purest” conservative of them all. In an earlier blog, I used these same data to conclude that John Bohlinger’s voting record in the legislature suggests he would be quite a conservative Democrat if elected to the United States Senate.

Corey Stapleton and Elsie Arntzen served in the state legislature before 2011, so they actually have NOMINATE scores based upon their votes. Stapleton had a score of .934 as a representative and 1.032 as a senator—averaging the two scores gives us a .983 for Stapleton. Arntzen had a score of .795. 

Rosendale is not included in the Schorr and McCarty data. I have, however, generated a score from him based upon the 11 legislators who have endorsed him and have NOMINATE scores in these data. Note that Rosendale has more than 50 current and former state legislators who have endorsed him, so this is only a slice of his total endorsement haul. The endorsements were culled from Rosendale’s campaign website. Averaging the scores of these 11 gives us a value of .872.

Again, the higher the value, the more conservative. The mean value of Republican state legislators for the entire period is .976. According to this analysis, that would place Elsie farthest to the left, followed by Rosendale, and then Stapleton—with only Stapleton to the right of the average state legislator.

Finally, there is the case of Ryan Zinke. As far as I can determine, he has no public endorsements from state legislators, current or former. Chuck Johnson of Lee Newspaper reported none, I found none listed on Zinke’s website, and an e-mail to Zinke’s campaign manager requesting a list has received no response. 

So, using this method, I can’t evaluate Zinke’s conservatism relative to Arntzen, Rosendale, and Stapleton.

But I CAN use Common Space scores calculated by Poole andRosenthal to help us pin Zinke down. Zinke received the endorsement of former U.S. Senator Conrad Burns. Rosendale received former Congressman Ron Marlenee’s blessing, and Artnzen landed former Congressman Rick Hill’s support. Stapleton, unfortunately, has not received the support of a former federal officeholder, so again, I’m left without complete information.

Using this metric, Arntzen comes out the most conservative as Rick Hill’s score of .448 is the most conservative, followed by Marlenee’s .397, and Burns’ .364. This suggests a ranking from least to most conservative of Zinke, Rosendale, and Arntzen with Stapleton as indeterminate.

One method finds Arntzen the most conservative, and another Stapleton. What do we make of this?
I’d put a bit more stock in the method based upon legislative voting records if only because there are more data points available for analysis compared to the voting records of only three federal officeholders. It is clear to me that Zinke is the hardest to pin down ideologically—and while that may provide him with a clear advantage in the general election, it may serve to give some Republican voters pause in the Republican primary.

Unfortunately, the mirror on the wall doesn’t give us a clear answer as to who is the “purest” conservative of them all. Instead, it leaves us with a blurry image of the voting records and beliefs of all three candidates.