Thursday, January 28, 2016

Montana 49th in Wages? Not Exactly.

This Sunday, you’ll get to watch Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte face off with me and Mike Dennison in the MTN studios on Face the State. I'll post a link once it has been uploaded. This is the first time I’ve interacted with Mr. Gianforte extensively, and I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. It should be an exciting race.
Greg Gianforte: Founder of RightNow Technologies and Republican candidate for Governor

During the show, you’ll hear me express skepticism about Mr. Gianforte’s claim that Montana is 49th in wages. I wanted to provide some context for that discussion, and explain why I don’t think this number is a particularly good measure of Montana’s overall economic health--and how I think it undercuts the argument being made by Mr. Gianforte.

As a political scientist, I like quantitative data. At the same time, when we use quantitative data, it is important to know how the data are calculated and the potential ways in which that calculation can introduce bias into our measures. It is true that Montana is not as economically well-off as other states. But are we really only better than Mississippi? I found that hard to believe. Here are three other measures of the economy and how Montana ranks:

U.S. Census
Per Capita Household Income (2014): 38th
Per Capita Income (2014): 34th

Bureau of Labor Statistics
Unemployment (November 2015): Tied for 12th (with Kansas)

Not first or even in the top half for per capita or household income, but not nearly rock bottom as the 49th in wages number suggests. And the unemployment picture is stellar. So what gives? Do we really have such low pay?

Back in April, many Montana media outlets reported that according to tax data compiled by Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), Montana was 49th in wages. No one took any time, however, to actually do a deep dig into that number. Once I heard Gianforte using the number repeatedly during his statewide announcement tour, I decided to do exactly that. 

I clicked on the methodology portion of the website, reading carefully about how the wage number is calculated. TRAC took the aggregate total of wage and salary-based income as reported on individual tax returns and divided that number by the number of tax returns received from the state. That led to the determination that at $33,180, Montana is 49th in average wages—just above Mississippi.

But there are two problems with this method. First, consider that some people derive no income from wages in a tax year. Some of these people are retired, some are students, and others live off of capital gains or other sources of passive income. Yet, these folks need to file a tax return—but are included in the data to compute the wage average despite having zero wages. This will serve to drag down the average wages. You might argue that this is the case in every state—and that’s true. But, if a state skews older (which Montana does) or has a high number of retirees receiving income from passive investments (see Big Sky, for example), then this biases the wage average downward. 

(In fact, Florida, New Mexico, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, and Maine are all at the bottom 11 and they are some of the oldest states in the US) 

Second, consider the nature of Montana’s economy. In 2015, we ranked number 1 (and, indeed, have been number 1 for quite some time) in the Kauffman Index of Startups. Put simply, we are a state full of small businesses and sole proprietorships—with people eager and willing to take risks. Many farmers, ranchers, telecommuters, tax accountants, consultants, plumbers, tradespeople and the like do not report W2 wage income either. I know this because for many years my wife was a consultant and she had no W2 income. Instead, all of her income was reported as business income—a separate line of a 1040 form. That means that many Montanans, who had good jobs, also report zero on the W2 line of their 1040s. And, that means they drag down the state’s wage average, too. Again, this is a double hit. Their income is included as zero AND they their tax return is included in the denominator for the overall wage average.

I argue this number very poorly reflects on the state of Montana’s job picture and I am skeptical of its use. There is no doubt in my mind that Montana can have a stronger economy and there’s a path for an even better future for our state. That’s a debate we need to have in this Governor’s race. But it is important, while having a conversation about that future, that we use the best numbers to decide what policies we need to pursue to keep Montana the Last (but not 49th), Best Place.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Speaker Zinke Redux: Still Too Liberal?

This evening, Congressman Paul Ryan announced his willingness to serve as Speaker if House Republicans agree to unite behind him. As Congressman Ryan Zinke has already indicated he would support Ryan if he were to run for the Speakership, it would appear that Zinke's Speakership bid (such as it was) appears to be over. Unless, of course, the House Freedom Caucus still thinks Congressman Ryan is too liberal.

I wrote last week that Congressman Zinke appeared to be too liberal to obtain enough support from the House Republican Caucus. Using a common measure of ideology employed by political scientists, I demonstrated that the Congressman was to the left of both the House Freedom Caucus and the House Republican mean. In fact, among the many names bandied about for the Speakership, Congressman Zinke was the second most liberal.

The Congressman's spokesperson, Heather Swift, took to Twitter to dispute my claim. She pointed me to GovTrack's measure of ideology. Swift pointed out that it was important to not only consider votes taken on the House floor (which is the basis of the NOMINATE score), but legislation that is sponsored and co-sponsored but which has not (and very well will not) receive space on the House agenda, therefore, will not receive a formal roll call vote.

Swift is not entirely wrong on this point. In fact, as I argue in Battle for the Big Sky, bill sponsorship is a better measure of true preferences because of the substantial resources required to submit and advocate for a piece of legislation. I don't entirely buy the argument that co-sponsorships is a good indicator of real ideological preferences, however, because a co-sponsorship could represent a member's true, revealed preferences or it might simply represent "cheap" talk--an attempt to look more left or right than one actually is.

In any case, I was happy to investigate the data that Swift pointed me to in order to see if I had missed something or had misrepresented the Congressman ideologically. I went to GovTrack, read their account of their ideology measure based upon bill sponsorships and co-sponsorships, and downloaded it. The folks at GovTrack note that their measure of ideology, while based on different information than Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal's NOMINATE scores, correlated well with those scores. You can read about the methodology here and grab the scores yourself.

The first thing I did was merge the NOMINATE data with the GovTrack Ideology measure and ran a simple correlation in Stata. Sure enough, the measures correlated robustly at .90. In other words, the measure of ideology based on roll calls was very similar to the measure of ideology based upon co-sponsorship patterns. In the political science business, this is what we call a high degree of face validity.

Next I simply ran a quick scatterplot of the NOMINATE and ideology scores for each member of the 114th Congress. Again, visually the data show that the two appear to measure the same thing. The upper right corner represents the Republicans while the lower left represents the Democrats. Here's that plot with the X-axis the Poole-Rosenthal NOMINATE and the Y-axis the GovTrack Ideology measure.

The next two graphs separate out the seventeen Republican speaker candidates mentioned in the news. The first chart replicates the scatterplot above, while the second simply graphs the speaker candidates from left to right using the GovTrack ideology score alone. In both charts, I add the mean value of the House Republican caucus, the mean value of the House Freedom Caucus, and the value for one standard deviation above and below the mean.

What do I find?

Essentially the same story I found when looking at the NOMINATE data alone. Congressman Zinke is now the fourth most liberal among those mentioned as Speaker candidates when looking at the GovTrack ideology measure. NOMINATE had him at second most liberal. He's still to the left of the Republican House Caucus mean. And he's still considerably to the left of the House Freedom Caucus. Using these data, Paul Ryan, Ryan Zinke, and Darrell Issa are all essentially the same ideologically--and all are to the left of the House Republican Caucus.

The take away point? Congressman Zinke, whether using roll call votes or co-sponsorship patterns, is on the left ideologically among his House Republican colleagues. In fact, there are 62 other members who are closer--using the GovTrack ideology measure--to the House Republican mean.

And, again, if Congressman Ryan is too liberal to be Speaker according to the House Freedom Caucus, than isn't Congressman Zinke?  #data

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Congressman Ryan Zinke: Too Liberal to be Speaker?

Montana's lone Congressman, Ryan Zinke, has recently been floated as a possible candidate for House Speaker. Apparently, the Congressman is taking the possibility of a campaign for the Speakership seriously and may throw his hat in the ring.

Zinke's leadership as Navy Seal propelled him to victory in 2014, and he--and others--think his leadership skills are exactly what are needed to right the Republican House Caucus.

I think this idea is crazy for lots of reasons, and I've gone on the record as to why I don't think it's a good idea or feasible (here and here). But to be clear: Zinke's leadership skills are not the problem.

One item I did not mention in my interviews is the Congressman's ideology relative to this peers in the House Republican caucus because I had not reviewed the data. Now that I have, I can say with some confidence, that the Congressman's ideology would present a serious problem in any Speakership bid. And, contrary to a recent press release from the Montana Democratic Party, it's not because Congressman Zinke is a "Tea Party sympathizer." Instead, Congressman Zinke might be too liberal to be Speaker of the House.

On this blog, I have long referenced the DW-NOMINATE scores produced by political scientists Keith Poole and his colleagues over at Using roll call votes cast, Poole and his fellow number crunchers develop a measure of ideology arrayed along a left-right dimension that plots each member of the Senate and House from most liberal to most conservative, roughly constrained at -1 for the most liberal member and +1 for the most conservative. In the past, these data have only been available after a congress has concluded. Now, however, they have developed a measure of ideology which they update weekly once roll call votes have been concluded.

I downloaded these weekly DW-Common Space scores earlier this week (available here), stripped out the Senate, and then calculated the mean ideology score for the House Republicans and then the House Freedom Caucus (using wikipedia's membership list to determine who was in the caucus). I then plotted those values along with the ideology scores of every conceivable speaker candidate from least conservative to most conservative. The results are reported below. Click on the chart for the best view.

Table:  Ideology of House Speaker Candidates in the 114th Congress

As is plain to the reader, Congressman Zinke is well to the left of the House Freedom Caucus, slight to the left of the average Republican member, and--among all the possible Speaker candidates mentioned--the second most liberal to Congressman Greg Walden, the NRCC chair from Oregon. He is more liberal than Congressman McCarthy, who withdrew from the speakership race. And, he is certainly more liberal than Congressman Ryan, who, according to The New York Times, is possibly too liberal for some members of the very conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Congressman Zinke will not be Speaker of the House. He's simply too liberal for House Republicans.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Hate Forest Fires in Montana? Then Let's Overcome Cognitive Dissonance and Address Root Causes

Summer is my favorite time of year in the Gallatin valley, perhaps because it is so fleeting (which makes it ever-so precious). I hike, bike, and run about town in the wonderful sunlight, surrounded by blue skies and hot, dry heat.  Of course, this weekend, my beloved Bozeman has been choked with smoke from a wildfire out in Three Forks. One of the costs of living in Montana, and the West more generally, is the fire season which is so essential to life and renewal here. Of course, that fire season has been getting worse and longer, which makes it harder on me when I exercise outside due to my asthma, a condition I've learned to manage throughout my life.

Over the weekend, I had time to reflect on forest fires and how sound public policy might help bring them under some control. I revisited Senator Daines’ recent op-ed in the Billings Gazette discussing wildfire and forest reform, which I read with interest. First, Daines hits the nail on the head concerning a critical challenge facing the US Forest Service and other federal agencies responsible for managing healthy forests: money. The US Forest Service’s budget is burdened with ever-increasing fire-fighting costs, which drain its ability to spend on other important activities such as trail, campground, and facility maintenance. Daines’ solution to this problem is his Wildfire Disaster Funding Act “which ensures large forest fires are treated and funded as the true natural disasters they are, similar to hurricanes or tornadoes.” I hope the bill—which Daines is co-sponsoring along with Senator Tester—finds a solid reception among critical allies of both parties, particularly those senators representing East Coast states hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. (Montanans also should hope that they don’t hold then-Congressman Steve Daines’ very first roll calls against him, given that he voted against a bill funding Sandy relief efforts.)
But what troubled me profoundly was the blame the senator placed for the “deteriorating conditions” that are responsible for increased wildfire risk. Senator Daines notes that we are at risk due to beetle kill in our forests “being left untreated”—a risk that he says is compounded by “years of inadequate forest management practices, spurred by obstructionist litigation from fringe groups and excessive regulations.”
Really? Well, I guess it’s time for me to whip out some “fancy” social science and give a little lesson in the funnel of causality. This is a theory developed by Campbell et al in their path-breaking work The American Voter, published in 1960. Essentially, Campbell et al argue that while the proximate decision influencing how someone votes is a person’s issue position, those issue positions are the product of a person’s party identification, which itself (often?) is a function of how the person was socialized into politics by his or her parents.
In other words, there’s a causal chain one needs to follow to understand the best and most powerful predictor of voting behavior, and that predictor is partisan identification—a bundle of attitudes and beliefs that is not immediately proximate to the voting decision. Issue positions don’t really matter—it’s the partisanship behind those positions that do.
Now let’s apply the funnel of causality to Daines’ argument on wildfires: According to his op-ed piece, the proximate causes for the risk we face, which are the tired trope of “government mismanagement” and “fringe environmentalists,” are the real problem Montanans face and the ones that require attention and redress.
But one must ask: Why is there more beetle kill in the first place? And why has the size of wildfires been on the rise in the United States, Canada, and globally—both as the charts below indicate and a recent study demonstrated? Oh, right: Because the warmer winters associated with global warming mean fewer Pine Bark beetles are dying off, enabling them to leave behind more dead trees strewn about waiting to burn up. All of this is well-documented Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle. And, again, a recent study demonstrates that increasing temperatures lead to more wildfire activity globally.

Total Hectares Burned by Wildfires in Canada, 1970-2013. Source: Canadian National Forestry Database

Total Acres Burned in the US (in millions of Acres), 1960-2014. Source: CRS Report, "Federal Funding for Wildfire Control and Management," July 5, 2011 and National Interagency Fire Center.

Daines is giving far too much credit to proximate causes: lawsuits and mismanagement. The root problem is global warming. We need to address that if we really want to get a handle on our wildfire risk. And to address that we, as global citizens, need to come to grips with our role in global warming via our insatiable appetite for carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, Senator Daines voted against an amendment earlier this year during the Keystone XL debate acknowledging the human role in climate change and, when running for the House, indicated in an interview a few years ago that the “jury is still out” on the role of CO-2 emissions in our ever-warming world.

The jury is not out. Ninety-seven percent of studies unambiguously endorse the notion that rising carbon dioxide levels, the result of human activity, are an important and substantial contributor to global warming. Check out the information yourself at NASA.
How many of you, when running a business or a household, place your bets on the 3 percent versus the 97 percent? If Senator Daines did this during his business career, I assure you, his career would have been much shorter and far less successful than it was. If I said it is only a "theory" that how people vote is a product largely of their partisanship, I'd be drummed out of the profession with good cause. The problem is that it is very hard for people to accept information that conflicts with their priors. Humans don't like cognitive dissonance, so instead, we reject information when it doesn't fit our beliefs. Worse, we search for justifications to confirm why that information is wrong and why what we believe is right. It is hard to overcome cognitive dissonance, but we--and those whom we elect to serve us--must.

The senator is a bright, articulate public servant. He is a graduate of Montana State, and has a degree in engineering. One would think that he would, as a man of science, make public policy on science and not advanced smoke-and-mirrors arguments about a very real threat our forests face from wildfire. How we fund fire fighting absolutely must change: Daines is right on that. But if we are really going to make our forests safer today and for future generations, we need to stop blaming red herrings and, instead, face the facts staring us straight in the face with regards to climate change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

2016: Is there a Republican NOT running for President? Bueller? Bueller?

What's more than the number of NFL players at team can have on the field?

The number of Republican candidates who have formerly announced their campaign for the presidency in 2016.

That's 16 Republican candidates to 11 NFL players. And, when you count the number of announced Democratic candidates (5), you almost have a complete offensive and defensive line!

As I sat and contemplated that number, I thought it had to be not only largest Republican presidential primary field, but the single largest presidential primary slate for the two major parties combined in the modern era.

Turns out, I was right.

OK, first the caveats. I define the modern presidential era with the 1972 campaign because that's the year that the McGovern-Fraser reforms, adopted by the Democratic Party, transformed the presidential nomination process. Essentially, the reforms opened up the selection process to voters in primaries and caucuses and while the reforms were established by the Democratic primary, the consequences of the reforms quickly spread to the Republican Party.

Second, it is hard to develop a hard and fast rule first for determining whether a candidate is seriously contesting the nomination.  I took the lead of political scientist Matthew Dickinson who recently opted for the standard used by Bill Mayer and Alan Silverleib: Did the candidate file a statement of candidacy with the FEC and who formally announced. For 1972 through 2008, I pulled from the list complied by Mayer and Silverlieb themselves in their chapter of the edited volume The Making of Presidential Candidates 2012. I then calculated the totals myself for 2012 and 2016, counting only the candidates that seriously contested the primaries or who had held previous elected office (so, Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann count, even though they were out before the first electoral contest, but so does Herman Cain of 9-9-9 fame).

Because I love charts, here's a chart. Click on it to enlarge.

What we get is 16 candidates in 2016--five more than the 11 Republicans running in 2008, 2012, and--yes--2000 (many people seem to think it was on McCain versus Bush, but there were many others who simply exited very early). With five Democrats announced today, that's 21 candidates total running for the Democratic and Republican nods. That's two more than in 2008, which saw 19 candidates total.

And, look at the resumes of just the Republican candidates. We have:

Former or Current Governors (8): Jindal, Bush, Perry, Kaisch, Walker, Christie, Huckabee, Pataki

Former or Current U.S. Senators (5): Rubio, Cruz, Graham, Paul, Santorum

Amateurs (3): Carson, Trump, Fiorina


Former or Current U.S. Senators (3): Sanders, Clinton, and Webb

Former or Current Governors (2): O'Malley and Chafee

Dickinson's article, linked above, explains why so many Republicans are running for the job, noting that there is no incumbent candidate, it is unusual for the sitting party to hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms, and some candidates may be running for reasons other than winning. I agree with the points he makes. What I'm interested in knowing is how Republican primary voters--and, to a lesser degree, Democratic primary voters, will be able to make clear choices in such a crowded field. As other political scientists have noted, including Washington State University professor Travis Ridout and Vanderbilt professor Larry Bartels, is election outcomes can quickly narrow the field both for the media and voters in subsequent primary contests.

That is, the media will concentrate its attention on the top three or four vote getters in the Iowa caucus and Republican primary and hence, voters will learn more about those candidates than the others. The major difference now, however, is the presence of Super PACs--which considerably changes the information game for voters. Between wealthy backers of candidates and state Republican Parties adopting proportionate delegate selection rules for early contests, the Republican primary process should be considerably lengthened. That, of course, is historically unusual given that the Republican Party historically has favored winner take all contests that allow an early frontrunner to quickly garner enough delegates to become the party's nominee early.

In 2008, McCain had the Republican nomination wrapped up by mid-March while the Democratic contest continued through early June. Democrats will likely think this is to their advantage, as a long, drawn out primary will bloody the eventual Republican nominee who will then go down to defeat to Hillary Clinton in November.

Of course, that's not how events played out in 2008, now is it? Competition tends to bring out the best in candidates and, more often than not, make the eventual nominee stronger. Perhaps the competition among Republicans and a longer contest may work to their benefit in 2016 as well.

Friday, April 24, 2015

A New Adventure and a New Blog to Document it

In case you've been wondering where that Parker guy went, you may want to check out my new blog (with today's inaugural post):

Montana Yankees in King Arthur's Court

I've been working furiously over the past year to put together a new course offering for students at Montana State that involves us learning about British politics up close, up front, and in the thick of the action. This has required a lot of my attention and bandwidth, as I've had to read up on developments and changes from an academic and practical perspective, create course content, and figure out whether we can do laundry in our hotels! The learning curve on any new course is steep and the gradient is steeper when you include arranging a travel itinerary and reaching out to current and former parliamentarians to convince them to meet 17 university students to talk about representation. But, all of it, has been an intellectual labor of love. I'm thrilled to be leading the first ever Montana State University political science study abroad class this spring.

Follow the blog above if you wish to travel with us. I'll add more content about US and Montana politics as the semester here begins to wind down.

And, as the English say, "Cheerio"!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Is Ryan Zinke Aiming for the United States Senate in 2018?

Members of Congress go to Washington and establish reputational styles which help explain to constituents the work that they do while on Capitol Hill. There is no one way to “correctly” represent a place, but a representational style chosen by a member reflects in part the priorities of the geographic constituency the member represents and their own personal inclinations born from their pre-congressional careers. Richard Fenno (1978), in his book Home Style, documented the various representational styles developed by members of Congress and used by them when explaining their “Washington Work” back home. Fenno documents three rough representational types: the constituent servant, the policy expert, and the member of Congress as “one of us.”

I discuss these in detail elsewhere (Parker 2015, Parker and Goodman 2009, Parker and Goodman 2013), so I’ll be brief.. A constituent servant helps constituents with casework, policy experts work on legislation and develop proficiency in a particular issue area, while “one of us” representatives “work to display their connectivity to a place and a group—and through that connection, demonstrate trustworthiness” (Parker 2015: 15).

It is clear that Congressman Zinke is comfortably slipping into a policy expert representational style—emphasizing his defense and foreign relations credentials (which are bolstered by his membership on the House Armed Services Committee). This makes sense for two reasons. First, it allows him to draw upon a pre-political career, which is a considerable electoral and governing asset. Second, it allows him to establish a representational relationship without competing directly with Senator Jon Tester or Senator Steve Daines. I wrote a blog some time ago noting how House members representing a state share a representational space with two U.S. Senators (see also Wendy Schiller’s Partners and Rivals). Just as U.S. Senators need to figure out how to craft their own distinctive reputations, so, too, must House members representing a state. This is especially important because media coverage and space are at a particular premium in these smaller states; to get attention, you must be doing something different from the rest of the delegation.

Members of the House face an additional complication when they are the lone representative. Many House members develop constituent service reputations in the House. But, as the work of Lee and Oppenheimer (1999) demonstrate, constituents in small states are more likely to contact their senators to solve problems and address casework concerns because senators are just as accessible, if not more so, than the House members in small states. In fact, the Montana’s senators have nearly twice the personal staff as the House member and have more offices back home. One of Congressman Denny Rehberg’s biggest challenges in his 2012 campaign was overcoming this official resource disparity to compete successfully with Senator Tester—and it is this disparity as much as other issues that was responsible for his loss.

Congressman Zinke, in choosing to develop a policy expert representational style, is consciously avoiding the problem faced by Congressman Rehberg and other House members representing entire states. He is striking out in a policy area not clearly owned by either Tester or Daines, and he can establish a favorable reputation among constituents without necessarily being in the position to be unfavorably compared to the Senate delegation from the get go. Congressmen simply cannot effectively compete as constituent servants against their Senate delegation in big states. It is a losing proposition. 

But, Congressman Zinke is doing far more with his policy expert representational style than becoming a statewide voice on national security matters and simply settling into his House seat for the long haul. Indeed, Congressman Zinke is consciously building a media presence well-beyond the statewide Montana media. 

Congressman Zinke, unlike his fellow House freshman, is getting noticed by national news outlets. He has appeared on CNN’s State of the Union, on the O’Reilly Factor, and on Fox News with Sean Hannity. He was mentioned in a New York Times piece on veterans in Congress, and had an op-ed published in the Washington Times. This is very unusual indeed for a freshman House member.

How unusual? Let’s go to the data!

I searched Lexis-Nexis Academic between January 5 and February 19, 2015 for each instance a freshman member of Congress’ name appeared in print, in the transcripts of national news broadcasts, or on blogs. I then produced two quick scatterplots. Both scatterplots have each freshmen house member, alphabetically listed by state, on the X Axis. 

The first scatterplot here has the number of mentions in national broadcast news broadcasts on the Y axis. The black line is the mean number of mentions, which is a bit more than one mention. The modal category is zero—meaning most House freshman in the 114th Congress are simply not mentioned by national news broadcasts. Congressman Zinke had five mentions—well above the average. I also indicate the other House freshman who had more mentions that Congressman Zinke. (Click on the plot for a larger version)

This actually underestimates, however, the attention Zinke has received. Congressman Zinke was not just mentioned—he was an invited guest on these programs on five occasions he shows up in the database. In each instance, Congressman Zinke focused his remarks on national security and foreign policy. 

Only Congresswoman Mia Love, a freshman Republican from Utah, who is both Mormon and a Haitian-American, has received anywhere close to the attention from the national networks. And while she has been mentioned more than Zinke on national television, she has only been a guest on a national news program twice. In fact, what seems to explain the attention given to the other freshman are special descriptive qualities about them. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik is the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress. Congressman Curbelo is a Latino Republican who is becoming the party’s face on immigration. And Congressman Lee Zeldin is the only Jewish Republican in the chamber and is a vocal critic of the administration from his perch on the foreign relations committee.

In the second scatterplot, the Y-axis represents the total number of mentions of each freshman House member of the 114th Congress on national news and in non-home state newspapers and blogs. The mean mention was seven (indicated by the bold black line). Again, Congressman Zinke outperforms this by far, with a total of 16 mentions—more than twice the average mentions across all three media platforms. (Click on the plot for a larger version)

(Quick side note: As other scholarship has shown, members of the majority party seem to get a media attention bonus and that’s the case here—Republican freshman in the House have slightly higher mentions on the web, in newspapers, and especially on television than Democratic freshmen).

Developing strong national defense credentials from which to build a constituency beyond Montana helps Zinke both in terms of reelection to the House and burnishes his credentials in a possible challenge to Jon Tester in 2018. How?

First, national media attention is often seen as desirable by constituents. In one study of national media exposure of U.S. Senators, Barbara Sinclair (1990) found that the number of mentions in The New York Times is associated with higher job approval ratings and feeling thermometer scores from individual constituents. Second, national media attention can also lead to additional power within the hall of Congress itself. Sinclair also writes that “within the Washington political community, national media exposure serves as an indicators that the senator is a player of consequence and, by showing she or he can command an audience, it increases the senator’s clout” (489). Zinke benefits by seeking out and successfully obtaining national media coverage on the campaign trail and in Washington.

But, thinking long term, developing a national media attention brings an added bonus beyond the obvious exposure to a network of national Republicans critical to raising the substantial sums necessary to fund a competitive Senate bid against an incumbent. It helps craft the perception of an activist representational style that constituents tend to expect from U.S. Senators more so than from individual members of Congress.

I present two pieces of evidence in support. The first is from Fenno’s book on North Dakota Senator Mark Andrews, When Incumbency Fails (1992). In that book, Senator Andrews—elected to his first term in 1980—is concerned about the prospect of facing a strong challenge from the state’s Democratic Congressman, Byron Dorgan. Dorgan, unlike Andrews, received considerable positive publicity around the North Dakota and was constantly holding forums with constituents. Andrews, on the hand, came home less often and spent much of his time mired in policy detail behind the scenes—while garnishing negative media attention due to a malpractice lawsuit he and his wife had launched against the state’s medical establishment in Fargo. Fenno argues that Andrews was trapped by the constituent service, small ball legislative politics style he developed as a member of the House Appropriations Committee—a style which seemed too little for the expectations North Dakotans had of their U.S. Senator.

The second is my own book, Battle for the Big Sky. In that book, I did three focus groups with voters in Gallatin County. One of the questions I asked was whether they saw senators and members of Congress playing different roles. On the whole, they agreed that the two positions were qualitatively different. Here’s what Nicholas, a 60 year old retired policeman said on the subject:

“I tend,” said Nicholas, to “see a senator as having the potential to be in the role as a statesperson much more than a representative.”62 Senators could “get something done” because the House members are “one per­son in a sea.” Not only would the Senate get more done but it would be more careful, “more considerate. [They] will more thoroughly look at something, be more educated on the topic” (153-154).

In this vein, Zinke looks—in cultivating his representational style and national media attention—like he’s positioning himself for a run at the U.S. Senate. Add to this the fact that he has been openly critical of Senator Tester on more than one occasion (here and here) since taking office, and I very much suspect that he will try to do what Denny Rehberg could not: Unseat Senator Tester.

I asked Zinke about this on KBZK this morning. Watch the interview here.

He pooh-poohed the idea, saying that as a member of the "loyal opposition" it was his job to occasionally criticize the other side and that there's nothing amiss in his relationship with Montana's senior senator.

Will he run and, if he runs, will he succeed? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I will be paying careful attention in the months and years ahead for hints and clues as to the Congressman’s true intentions.