Monday, April 7, 2014

Is John Bohlinger a Democrat? Show me the data!

Two weeks ago, the Montana Democratic Party saw fit to endorse Senator John Walsh in the Democratic primary. Bryan Watt, spokesman for the Democrats, said in announcing the party’s support for Walsh, that neither Adams nor Bohlinger were actual “Democrats.”  Of course, John Walsh’s opponents—Wilsall rancher Dirk Adams and former Lt. Governor John Bohlinger—were extremely upset by the decision and took umbrage at the party’s decision to declare them party non gratis.

In this post, I’d like to assess the claim that John Bohlinger is not a Democrat. The former Lt. Governor points to a slew of progressive legislation that he carried while serving in the state legislature, and of course, claims his work in the Schweitzer administration as demonstrating his fidelity to the principles of the Democratic Party. Others, notably liberal blogger Don Pogreba over at Intelligent Discontent, have pointed to other evidence suggesting otherwise. They include advertisements aired by Schweitzer’s campaign during the 2008 reelection where Bohlinger notes he’s a Republican, Bohlinger’s support for (and willingness to chair the state campaign committee for) John McCain during the 2008 presidential election, and Bohlinger’s record on abortion—which some claim is not consistent or liberal enough for a Democrat. (And, see here, here, and here for the tit for tat between Pogreba and Dirk Adams over Dirk’s record—fun stuff).

Like most things, I prefer to look at solid empirical data to sort out these “he said, she said” type claims. How can we get closer to understanding John Bohlinger’s claim to be a Democrat?
Fortunately, we can look at public positions in the aggregate and individual level. Since John Bohlinger served in the Montana House and Senate, we can compare his record there to other legislators to see how he stacks up to other Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, since Dirk Adams has not served in public office, I can't assess his record using this method.

In a previous blogs, I utilized DW-NOMINATE scores to examine the voting records of Montana’s congressional delegation in the post-World War II era (here and here) Two political scientists have taken the NOMINATE estimation model developed by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal and, using the Project Vote Smart National Political Awareness Test (a survey of federal and state legislators), generated common space NOMINATE type scores of state legislators serving in all fifty states between 1993 and 2011. Grab these data here. I encourage you to read their APSR paper on the process and to go to their website where they data are available for download and analysis in the comfort of your home. It’s available here.

I simply downloaded the Schorr and Rosenthal data and pulled out the Montana legislators for analysis. Like NOMINATE, higher positive scores indicate more conservatism. High negative scores, more liberalism. Unlike NOMINATE, there is only one score for each member per chamber rather than a score per session. This means there is one score for the member—that is, unless they change parties. Then a new score is computed. Again, let me refer you to Schorr and Rosenthal’s FAQ section of their website here.

Before getting into the analysis, let’s do something called a face validity check. Do the scores assigned legislators make intuitive sense given what we generally know about Montana legislators? Here are the five most conservative and liberal legislators for the whole period listed in Table 1. Anyone who follows the state legislature is probably not surprised by this list of the most liberal and conservative members. And, as a result, this measure of ideology would seem to exhibit a certain degree of face validity.

Table 1: Ideology Rankings of Montana State Legislators, 1993-2011
Most Conservative Most Liberal Ideology Score
Jore 2.486
Toole -1.531
Sales 2.219
Ellingson -1.349
Koopman 2.047
Ellinson -1.328
Everett 2.038
Bixby -1.286
Adams 1.963
Buzzas -1.275
Hawk 1.907
Doherty -1.265

The mean value of the Republican Party is .976 for the entire period, and for the Democrats, it’s -.654. Jon Tester, who has established a voting career in the U.S. Congress to the right of Democrats in the U.S. Senate, had a very similar voting record in the Montana State legislature. Again, his score of -.431 is to the right of the Democrats serving in the legislature. In fact, it is about half a standard deviation to the right of the mean. One thing that is fairly well-established among those studying roll call behavior: members rarely change their ideology during their careers. Tester, by this measure, has been consistent—as we would expect from the literature.

Where does John Bohlinger sit? For the entire period, the average score for Republicans is .976. Bohlinger’s ideology value is .322. Essentially, this indicates that out of the 247 legislators serving in the Montana legislature and coded in these data, John Bohlinger compiled the 14th most liberal voting record. That is two and a half standard deviations to the left of the Republican mean. Bohlinger was a pretty liberal Republican during his time in Helena.


Had John Bohlinger served as a Democrat, it would have made him the fourth most conservative Democrat to serve during the period. In fact, John Bohlinger would be about two and a half standard deviations to the RIGHT of the mean Democrat. As liberal as Bohlinger was as a Republican, he’d still be a pretty conservative Democrat in the state legislature.

Relative to Republicans, John Bohlinger is quite liberal based upon his NOMINATE vote score accumulated during his time in the legislature. Relative to other Democrats, he’s pretty darned conservative. Maybe he’s become more liberal since then as he’s served with Governor Schweitzer. But, many political scientists suggest that such dramatic ideological conversions are relatively rare. I’d peg Bohlinger, from these data, as a moderate who sits ideologically in the broad center between the two parties—two parties that have, at least in the national legislature, have polarized over the past three decades. And, by the way, a center that has become essentially abandoned in American politics.

Is John Bohlinger a Democrat? Frankly, that’s the beauty of primary elections: it is up to the electorate participating in the Democratic primary to decide—notwithstanding the party’s endorsement of Lt. Governor John Walsh. The voters, ultimately, get to make the call.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Congressman Steve Daines: Montana's Most Conservative House Member--Ever?

 I’m always skeptical when I get the e-mails and press releases from candidates attacking the records of their opponents. They are often prone to hyperbole and histrionics. In 2012, Jon Tester was called “liberal” and advertisements suggested he was an Obama clone for voting with the president “95 percent of the time”.  I recently received an e-mail from the Montana Democratic Party that says the following about “Shut Down Steve”: “Congressman Daines’ Tea Party agenda isn’t just hurting Montana families, it’s hurting Montana’s great outdoors for future generations”. An earlier e-mail claims that “Congressman Daines’ decision to side with extremists” hurts Montana.

Steve Daines’ own campaign has intimated that Walsh is in the pocket of out-state liberal interest who will “spend millions promoting Walsh.” The email continues: “But the fact remains that we're going to have to compete with millions of dollars from the Democrat elite, special interests, Hollywood, and New York liberals, like Chuck Schumer.”

How does one make sense of all of these allegations? Is Representative Steve Daines “too extreme” or “too conservative” for Montana? How can we objectively assess the voting records of members of Congress especially when the campaigns have little interest in an objective portrayal?

One way to evaluate the voting records of members of Congress is to examine their NOMINATE scores. NOMINATE is a measure of ideology developed by political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal. This measure uses the roll call votes of members and plots every member along a left-right dimension ranging roughly between -1 and 1—with -1 the extreme liberal end of the scale, and 1 the extreme conservative end. This measure allows us to not only evaluate how liberal or conservative a member is relative to other members, it also allows us to measure how the ideologies of members of Congress has changed over time.

Recently, Poole and Rosenthal released their NOMINATE estimates for the first year of the 113thCongress. We can finally, with these scores, put Daines’ voting record into comparative perspective. In the first figure below, I plot Daines’ NOMINATE scores relative to every other member elected to serve in the House of Representatives for Montana in the post-war era (from the 80th Congress through the first year of the 113th). Democrats serving in the House are below the X-Axis, and Republicans are above the X-Axis.

Figure 1: NOMINATE SCORES for Montana's House Delegation, 80-113th Congresses

 The first thing that leaps out from these data is that, unequivocally, Daines has compiled the most conservative voting record of any Montanan elected to the House of Representatives. Of that there is little doubt—his NOMINATE score is far more conservative than Rehberg’s (who, by the way, was not particularly extreme ideologically) and further to the right of Congressman Rick Hill.

The second figure aims to put each House member’s ideological into additional comparative perspective. This time, I plotted the mean NOMINATE values for the Democratic and Republican Parties in each Congress. Then, I subtracted the NOMINATE value for each member of Montana’s delegation from that mean. The resulting value represents how far the member is their party’s NOMINATE average relative to the ideological center (which is zero on this scale). A positive value means the member is to the left of the party mean and a negative value to the right of the party mean. 

Figure 2: Montana's House Members Ideology Relative to Party Mean, 80th-113 Congresses

Note how much further the Republican Party has moved to the right compared to the Democratic Party’s move to the left. Second, note that Congressman Daines is pretty close to the Republican mean in the current Congress but—because the Republican mean has moved so far to the right—he is the most conservative individual Montana has ever elected to the House of Representatives even if he represents the center of his party. By comparison, note how centrist Congressman Rehberg appears relative to the rightward shift of the Republican Party during his time in Congress. Perhaps this ideological disparity explains why Rehberg's campaign was so concerned with nailing down his ideological right flank during the 2012 Senate race.

It is also interesting to note that the Democratic Party nationally has not moved as far leftward as the Republican Party has moved rightward—and furthermore, Democrats representing Montana in the House generally speaking have moved to the right of their party ideologically and closer to the ideological center over time (note how much more liberal the Democratic House delegation was in the 1950s and 1960s than the Democratic Party nationally has denoted by the positive purple bars on the left side of the graph). Montana Republicans, generally speaking, have been much further from that center and the distance has only increased over time.

Now, Daines’ record is certainly the most conservative of any House member to serve the state. Is that too extreme? He is not as extreme or conservative as other members of the House. Congressman Daine’s NOMINATE score is to the left of the average member of the House Tea Party Caucus (whose average score is .794). The most right member of the Republican Party is Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner from Wisconsin who has a NOMINATE score of 1.257. The most liberal Republican is Congressman Walter Jones of North Carolina who has a NOMINATE score of .054. To the immediate left of Congressman Daines is Congressmen Barton and Hall of Texas and Congressman Lankford of Oklahoma. To his immediate right are Congressmen Hunter (CA), Hartzler (MO), and Renacci (OH).

Although Congressman Daines has made some votes to establish moderate credentials, most notably his vote for the Violence Against Women Act, his global voting record as calculated using the NOMINATE algorithm clearly shows he is quite conservative and without a doubt the most conservative Montana has elected to the House of Representatives. A big part of Daines’ conservative record simply reflects how far to the right the Republican Party has moved in the past twenty years.

Is Congressman Steve Daines "too extreme" for Montana?  That will be for the voters to decide.