2011 Vote Ratings

Pulling Apart

Congress was more polarized last year than in any other year since National Journal began compiling its vote ratings. Overlap between the parties is disappearing.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 09:  Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) (C) talks to reporters with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (L) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) after a lunch meeting at the White House February 9, 2011 in Washington, DC. The House Republican leadership was invited to a lunch meeting with President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff William Daley to talk about jobs and the economy.   (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
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Ronald Brownstein
Feb. 24, 2011, 11:40 a.m.

In the long march to­ward a more par­lia­ment­ary and par­tis­an Wash­ing­ton, Na­tion­al Journal’s 2010 con­gres­sion­al vote rat­ings mark a new peak of po­lar­iz­a­tion.

For only the second time since 1982, when NJ began cal­cu­lat­ing the rat­ings in their cur­rent form, every Sen­ate Demo­crat com­piled a vot­ing re­cord more lib­er­al than every Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an — and every Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­an com­piled a vot­ing re­cord more con­ser­vat­ive than every Sen­ate Demo­crat. Even Neb­raska’s Ben Nel­son, the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat in the rank­ings, pro­duced an over­all vot­ing re­cord slightly to the left of the most mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans last year: Ohio’s George Voinovich and Maine’s Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The Sen­ate had been that di­vided only once be­fore, in 1999.

But the over­all level of con­gres­sion­al po­lar­iz­a­tion last year was the highest the in­dex has re­cor­ded, be­cause the House was much more di­vided in 2010 than it was in 1999. Back then, more than half of the cham­ber’s mem­bers com­piled vot­ing re­cords between the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an and the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat. In 2010, however, the over­lap between the parties in the House was less than in any pre­vi­ous in­dex.

Just five House Re­pub­lic­ans in 2010 gen­er­ated vote rat­ings more lib­er­al than the most con­ser­vat­ive House Demo­crat, Gene Taylor of Mis­sis­sippi. Just four Demo­crats pro­duced rat­ings more con­ser­vat­ive than the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, Joseph Cao of Louisi­ana. Every oth­er House Re­pub­lic­an pro­duced a more con­ser­vat­ive vote rat­ing than every oth­er House Demo­crat, even though a sub­stan­tial num­ber of those Demo­crats pur­sued a re­l­at­ively mod­er­ate course over­all. Of the nine mem­bers who were out­liers last year, only one — Re­pub­lic­an Wal­ter Jones of North Car­o­lina — is still in Con­gress. That makes him the only law­maker in the House or Sen­ate this year to have a 2010 vote rat­ing out of sync with his party.

The res­ults doc­u­ment an­oth­er leap for­ward in the fu­sion of ideo­logy and par­tis­an­ship that has re­made Con­gress over the past three dec­ades, the peri­od tracked by NJ‘s vote rat­ings. For most of Amer­ic­an his­tory, the two parties op­er­ated as ram­shackle co­ali­tions that har­bored di­verse and even an­ti­thet­ic­al views. Each party’s Sen­ate caucus housed ideo­lo­gic­al ant­ag­on­ists, such as pro­gress­ive Demo­crat­ic ti­tan Hubert Humphrey of Min­nesota and se­greg­a­tion­ist stal­wart Richard Rus­sell of Geor­gia, or New Right Re­pub­lic­an firebrand Jesse Helms of North Car­o­lina and silk-stock­ing New York City lib­er­al Jac­ob Javits. Such con­trasts are not ex­tinct. But since the early 1980s, they have vastly di­min­ished as the dif­fer­ences with­in each party have nar­rowed and the dis­tance between them has widened.

Over that peri­od, “it’s just a straight, lin­ear in­crease” in con­gres­sion­al po­lar­iz­a­tion, says Gary Jac­ob­son, a Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego) polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist who spe­cial­izes in Con­gress. “There’s a little bit of bump­ing around in the num­bers here and there, but the ba­sic move­ment is to­ward the parties mov­ing fur­ther and fur­ther apart. The 1970s are a high point of all the cross-party [co­ali­tions]. The last three dec­ades are ones of pulling apart.”

In 2010, the vote rat­ings show, the ideo­lo­gic­al con­sol­id­a­tion was great­er among Re­pub­lic­ans than Demo­crats. Al­most without ex­cep­tion House Re­pub­lic­ans gen­er­ated strongly con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords, re­gard­less of the demo­graphy or polit­ic­al lean­ings of their dis­tricts. By con­trast, House Demo­crats from dis­tricts that voted for John Mc­Cain in 2008 or are dom­in­ated by work­ing-class whites pro­duced much less lib­er­al re­cords than their col­leagues from dis­tricts that strongly sup­por­ted Barack Obama or are more ra­cially di­verse and well edu­cated. In the Sen­ate, just eight Re­pub­lic­ans notched a com­pos­ite con­ser­vat­ive score of less than 70, while 21 Demo­crats re­ceived a lib­er­al rank­ing of less than 70.

The res­ults cap­ture the con­tin­ued re­mak­ing of Con­gress in­to an in­sti­tu­tion defined by much great­er par­tis­an dis­cip­line and philo­soph­ic­al con­form­ity. Oc­ca­sion­ally, le­gis­lat­ors can still build idio­syn­crat­ic co­ali­tions across party lines, as oc­curred dur­ing some of the votes on the free-wheel­ing House de­bate over spend­ing earli­er this month. Like­wise, a bi­par­tis­an group of sen­at­ors is at­tempt­ing to build a cross-party al­li­ance to ad­vance the re­com­mend­a­tions of Pres­id­ent Obama’s debt-re­duc­tion com­mis­sion.

But in­creas­ingly, on the biggest is­sues, the parties line up in vir­tu­al lock­step against each oth­er, as they did on many of the key meas­ures in the 2010 rank­ings, such as the Sen­ate votes on health care and fin­an­cial-ser­vices re­form. (Even on the House’s fi­nal vote last week­end on fund­ing the gov­ern­ment through Septem­ber, every Demo­crat voted in op­pos­i­tion and all but three Re­pub­lic­ans voted in sup­port.) All of this is fun­da­ment­ally chan­ging the way Con­gress gets things done — when it gets things done at all. “If you are the whip in either party you are lik­ing this, [be­cause] it makes your job easi­er,” says Mis­sis­sippi Re­pub­lic­an Trent Lott, the former Sen­ate ma­jor­ity lead­er (and be­fore that the GOP Sen­ate whip). “In terms of get­ting things done for the coun­try, that’s not the case.”

For those who have come of age in today’s hy­per­par­tis­an Con­gress — with its near-par­lia­ment­ary levels of party dis­cip­line on floor votes, jagged ideo­lo­gic­al con­front­a­tions, and dom­in­ant role for lead­er­ship — it’s easy to for­get how dif­fer­ent the in­sti­tu­tion looked as re­cently as the early 1980s, when NJ began meas­ur­ing mem­bers’ votes on a lib­er­al-to-con­ser­vat­ive scale.

The first time NJ cal­cu­lated con­gres­sion­al votes us­ing the scale it em­ploys now, in 1982, the res­ults re­vealed a Con­gress that op­er­ated in a man­ner that would be un­re­cog­niz­able today.

John Dan­forth, a mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or from Mis­souri, was fin­ish­ing his first term in 1982. He re­mem­bers that soon after he ar­rived, Rus­sell Long of Louisi­ana, the ven­er­able Demo­crat­ic power­house who chaired the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee, gave him a sin­gu­lar piece of ad­vice. ” “˜Don’t ever hold grudges, be­cause your strongest op­pon­ent today could be your ally to­mor­row,’ “ Dan­forth, who re­tired in 1994, re­called in a re­cent in­ter­view.

That ad­vice made sense in the Sen­ate of those years, be­cause both caucuses were much more di­verse and un­pre­dict­able than they are today. In NJ‘s 1982 vote rat­ings, fully 36 Sen­ate Demo­crats com­piled re­cords at least as con­ser­vat­ive as the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, Low­ell Weick­er of Con­necti­c­ut. From the oth­er dir­ec­tion, 24 Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans com­piled vot­ing re­cords at least as lib­er­al as the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat, Ed­ward Zor­insky of Neb­raska. Zor­insky, in fact, re­ceived a rat­ing ex­actly as con­ser­vat­ive as Ari­zona Re­pub­lic­an Barry Gold­wa­ter, whose 1964 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign ig­nited the mod­ern con­ser­vat­ive re­viv­al.

The sen­at­ors with vot­ing re­cords that fell between the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an and the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat rep­res­en­ted a pool of idio­syn­crat­ic, un­at­tached pieces that could be as­sembled and re­as­sembled in con­stantly shift­ing co­ali­tions to pass or block le­gis­la­tion. In such a flu­id en­vir­on­ment, it vir­tu­ally de­fied con­cep­tu­al­iz­a­tion to define a typ­ic­al Demo­crat or typ­ic­al Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­or.

The Demo­crats who gen­er­ated less lib­er­al re­cords than Weick­er in­cluded New South mod­er­ates such as Dav­id Boren of Ok­lahoma and Sam Nunn of Geor­gia and Old South con­ser­vat­ives such as an­cient John Sten­nis of Mis­sis­sippi and Harry Byrd of Vir­gin­ia, as well as coastal neo­lib­er­als such as Bill Brad­ley of New Jer­sey. The Re­pub­lic­ans more lib­er­al than Zor­insky in­cluded a phalanx of brainy New Eng­land mod­er­ates, among them Weick­er, Wil­li­am Co­hen of Maine, War­ren Rud­man of New Hamp­shire, John Chafee of Rhode Is­land, and Robert Stafford of Ver­mont, a cham­pi­on of the mod­ern en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment. Is­sues fre­quently di­vided the parties along ideo­lo­gic­al and re­gion­al lines. When Helms pushed a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment to al­low school pray­er, Weick­er and Dan­forth helped lead the fight to stop him.

“The over­arch­ing point is that the Sen­ate was com­prised of 100 in­di­vidu­als who had a loose bind­ing with the re­spect­ive parties,” says Weick­er, who left the GOP in 1990 to win the Con­necti­c­ut gov­ernor­ship as an in­de­pend­ent. “There were more con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crats, more lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­ans. You had people who stood on their own two feet.”

In the three dec­ades since, NJ‘s vote rat­ings have tracked the nar­row­ing of that Sen­ate cen­ter. By 1994, the second year of Bill Clin­ton’s pres­id­ency, 27 Demo­crats com­piled more con­ser­vat­ive NJ vot­ing re­cords than the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, James Jef­fords of Ver­mont (who also later left the GOP to be­come an in­de­pend­ent). Just nine Re­pub­lic­ans com­piled vot­ing re­cords more lib­er­al than the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat that year — Richard Shelby of Alabama; Shelby, too, later switched parties, join­ing the GOP. In 1999, with Clin­ton’s im­peach­ment loom­ing over the cham­ber and the parties re­coil­ing in the af­ter­math of the grass­roots con­ser­vat­ive back­lash against the 1997 bal­anced-budget deal, NJ found no Sen­ate cros­sov­er between the parties for the only oth­er time.

By 2002, the second year of George W. Bush’s pres­id­ency, some over­lap re­turned, but just two Demo­crats com­piled a more con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cord than the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an, Rhode Is­land’s Lin­coln Chafee. (Con­tinu­ing the pat­tern, Chafee was elec­ted gov­ernor as an in­de­pend­ent last Novem­ber.) Just sev­en Re­pub­lic­ans racked up vot­ing re­cords more lib­er­al than the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat, Geor­gia’s Zell Miller (who nev­er switched parties but did en­dorse Bush at the 2004 GOP con­ven­tion).

In 2010, the second year of Obama’s term, this pro­cess of sep­ar­a­tion reached an­oth­er  apex, with no over­lap between the ideo­lo­gic­al scores of sen­at­ors from the two parties. Tak­ing the long view, the tra­ject­ory from Ron­ald Re­agan’s second year to Obama’s is stark: In 1982, 58 sen­at­ors com­piled vot­ing re­cords that fell between the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an and the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat. By 1994, the num­ber was down to 34. By 2002 (after touch­ing zero in 1999), it stood at just sev­en. And now it has re­turned to zero. “Over the years, there is no ques­tion that the middle in the Sen­ate has shrunk con­sid­er­ably,” says Lott, now a Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ist and a seni­or fel­low at the Bi­par­tis­an Policy Cen­ter.

In the House, as noted earli­er, some ideo­lo­gic­al over­lap re­mains. But the ba­sic story is the same — and in some ways is even more dra­mat­ic. In 1982, the days of con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat­ic “Boll Weevils” and lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an “Gypsy Moths,” fully 344 House mem­bers re­ceived NJ vote rat­ings between the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an (Rhode Is­land’s Claud­ine Schneider) and the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat (Geor­gia’s Larry Mc­Don­ald). Even as re­cently as 1999, 226 House law­makers com­piled rat­ings between the most lib­er­al Re­pub­lic­an and the most con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat. By 2005, the num­ber between those two poles fell to 54. By 2010, the num­ber of mem­bers between those two bound­ar­ies had shriveled to sev­en.

The sep­ar­a­tion between the parties might not al­ways be as pro­nounced as in the 2010 rat­ings. Some Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans (Scott Brown of Mas­sachu­setts, say, or Mark Kirk of Illinois) might eas­ily com­pile more-mod­er­ate vot­ing re­cords than Demo­crats Nel­son of Neb­raska or Joe Manchin of West Vir­gin­ia, par­tic­u­larly if both tilt to the right in an­ti­cip­a­tion of tough 2012 reelec­tion cam­paigns. As Mi­chael Franc, vice pres­id­ent for gov­ern­ment re­la­tions at the con­ser­vat­ive Her­it­age Found­a­tion, notes, it may have been easi­er for Re­pub­lic­ans to achieve un­an­im­ity in op­pos­i­tion to Obama’s agenda than it will be for them to do so while try­ing to pass their own pro­grams.

Yet, the un­der­ly­ing trend to­ward the parties pulling apart in Con­gress is un­mis­tak­able, and, in the eyes of many ana­lysts, prob­ably ir­re­vers­ible. “The two parties,” says Wash­ing­ton lob­by­ist Vic Fazio, the former chair­man of the House Demo­crat­ic Caucus, “in­creas­ingly are at po­lar op­pos­ites.”

Though the dom­in­ant trend is in­creas­ing con­ver­gence with­in the parties, and widen­ing di­ver­gence between them, the 2010 vote rat­ings re­veal en­dur­ing fault lines in each cham­ber, par­tic­u­larly among Demo­crats.

The rat­ings meas­ured 427 House mem­bers and 94 sen­at­ors; the miss­ing House and Sen­ate seats were held by a per­son (or per­sons) who did not cast enough votes last year to war­rant a score.

The res­ults re­af­firm the link between sen­at­ors’ vot­ing re­cords and the be­ha­vi­or of their states in pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. Sen­at­ors whose states re­li­ably sup­port can­did­ates from the law­makers’ party in White House races have con­sist­ently com­piled more-ideo­lo­gic­al vot­ing re­cords than sen­at­ors whose states of­ten prefer the oth­er party or swing between them. (See “Serving Be­hind En­emy Lines,” NJ, 4/24/10, p. 25.) That pat­tern was vivid again in 2010.

Of the 21 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors with the most-lib­er­al over­all vot­ing re­cords, ac­cord­ing to the rat­ings, 18 were elec­ted from “blue wall” states that have voted Demo­crat­ic in at least the past five pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. The only ex­cep­tions to the pat­tern are Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id of Nevada and Ohio’s Sher­rod Brown, who tied with sev­en oth­ers for the most lib­er­al Demo­crat­ic score; and first-ter­mer Tom Ud­all of New Mex­ico, who tied for the 15th-most-lib­er­al score.

Among Re­pub­lic­ans, the 22 sen­at­ors with the most-con­ser­vat­ive vote rat­ings were all elec­ted in states that voted Re­pub­lic­an in at least the past three pres­id­en­tial elec­tions. That group in­cludes the eight who tied for the most con­ser­vat­ive score — among them Jim De­Mint of South Car­o­lina, John Cornyn of Texas, and Mike Crapo of Idaho. In a strik­ing meas­ure of his re­pos­i­tion­ing since 2008, Ari­zona’s Mc­Cain also tied for the most con­ser­vat­ive score among Re­pub­lic­ans; as re­cently as 2001, in the af­ter­math of his de­feat by Bush in the 2000 GOP primar­ies, Mc­Cain had gen­er­ated the 39th-most-con­ser­vat­ive re­cord in the Sen­ate.

In both parties, dis­sent is more com­mon among the sen­at­ors elec­ted, in ef­fect, be­hind en­emy lines. These are the law­makers who are of­ten most in­ter­ested in ex­plor­ing com­prom­ises that round off the sharp edges of par­tis­an con­flict. Over­all, the 30 GOP sen­at­ors, for in­stance, elec­ted from states that voted Re­pub­lic­an in each of the past three pres­id­en­tial elec­tions com­piled an av­er­age com­pos­ite lib­er­al score of 17, mean­ing that as a group they were more lib­er­al than 17 per­cent of their Sen­ate col­leagues. But the three GOP sen­at­ors elec­ted from states that voted Demo­crat­ic in each of the pres­id­en­tial con­tests since 2000 — Collins and Snowe of Maine and Brown of Mas­sachu­setts — gen­er­ated an av­er­age lib­er­al score more than twice that, 37 per­cent.

The same holds true for Demo­crats. The 30 Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors elec­ted from states that voted Demo­crat­ic in the past three pres­id­en­tial elec­tions com­piled an av­er­age lib­er­al score of nearly 76. By con­trast, the eight Demo­crats elec­ted from states that voted Demo­crat­ic for pres­id­ent only once since 2000 com­piled an av­er­age lib­er­al score of 67, and the dozen from states that have not voted Demo­crat­ic since at least 2000 amassed an av­er­age lib­er­al score of only 60. Ex­cept for icon­o­clast­ic Con­necti­c­ut in­de­pend­ent Joe Lieber­man (who is re­tir­ing after next year), all 14 of the Sen­ate Demo­crats with the most-con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords, re­l­at­ively speak­ing, rep­res­ent states that have not voted Demo­crat­ic more than once since 2000 — a list that in­cludes Nel­son of Neb­raska, Jon Test­er and Max Baucus of Montana, Mark Warner and Jim Webb of Vir­gin­ia, Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina, and Mi­chael Ben­net and Mark Ud­all of Col­or­ado.

Those pair­ings un­der­score an­oth­er strik­ing trend in the Sen­ate res­ults: the con­ver­gence among the rat­ings of sen­at­ors from the same party who rep­res­ent the same state. Al­though the gap between sen­at­ors from op­pos­ite parties who hail from the same state (say Demo­crat Tom Har­kin and Re­pub­lic­an Chuck Grass­ley of Iowa) re­mains large, par­tis­an pairs in­creas­ingly fol­low the same course. For in­stance, Demo­crats Carl Lev­in and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan and Bar­bara Mikul­ski and Ben Cardin of Mary­land all tied for the most lib­er­al rank­ing (as did Demo­crat Patrick Leahy and in­de­pend­ent Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont). The oth­er end of the ideo­lo­gic­al scale finds the over­lap between Test­er and Baucus, Webb and Warner, Ben­net and Ud­all. Sim­il­ar pat­terns are evid­ent among Re­pub­lic­ans. In all, 22 states were rep­res­en­ted by sen­at­ors whose vote rat­ings were with­in 5 per­cent­age points of each oth­er. In only 12 states did sen­at­ors have vote rat­ings more than 25 per­cent­age points apart.

This con­ver­gence may il­lus­trate the di­min­ished abil­ity of sen­at­ors to sail a dis­tinct course, in­de­pend­ent of the dom­in­ant polit­ic­al cur­rents in their state. The fre­quent pair­ings sug­gest that sen­at­ors are align­ing more closely with their state’s un­der­ly­ing polit­ic­al bal­ance, or at least the con­sensus in their party with­in their state.

Those who break from that con­sensus face an in­creas­ing risk of primar­ies driv­en by act­iv­ists of the Left or Right; three sen­at­ors — two Re­pub­lic­ans and one Demo­crat — were denied re­nom­in­a­tion in 2010, al­most as many as in the pre­vi­ous 26 years com­bined. “There is more of a de­mand in each party for a de­gree of pur­ity or in­flex­ib­il­ity that was not there be­fore,” says Dan­forth, now a law­yer in St. Louis. Lott notes that the grow­ing threat of such primary chal­lenges (at least three more Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans could face ser­i­ous op­pon­ents in 2012) power­fully re­in­forces the trend to­ward par­tis­an and ideo­lo­gic­al con­form­ity evid­ent in the rat­ings. “You really need to toe the line,” he says. “That af­fects people’s think­ing — both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans.”

In the House, as in the Sen­ate, Re­pub­lic­ans pur­sued a more uni­fied course in 2010 than Demo­crats did. The con­trast between the parties was ar­gu­ably even great­er in the lower cham­ber. What’s more, many House Re­pub­lic­ans com­piled con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords re­gard­less of the demo­graph­ic or polit­ic­al bent of their dis­tricts, while Demo­crats differed sub­stan­tially based on those factors.

Among Demo­crats, for in­stance, there was a clear re­la­tion­ship between their 2010 vote rat­ing and the way their dis­trict voted for pres­id­ent in 2008. The 124 House Demo­crats rep­res­ent­ing dis­tricts where Obama won at least 60 per­cent of the vote com­piled an av­er­age lib­er­al score of nearly 81, well above the party av­er­age of 70. In stair-step fash­ion, the av­er­age lib­er­al score dropped to 69 for the 48 House Demo­crats in dis­tricts where Obama won between 55 and 59 per­cent, and to 63 for the 35 in dis­tricts that he car­ried with less than 55 per­cent of the vote. Most strik­ingly, the av­er­age lib­er­al score of the 47 House Demo­crats from dis­tricts that Mc­Cain car­ried in 2008 stood at just 50 — fully 30 per­cent­age points be­low the num­ber for those hold­ing the safest seats. Of the 50 House Demo­crats with the most-con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords, 35 were from dis­tricts that Mc­Cain car­ried.

Among Re­pub­lic­ans, the vari­ation was much smal­ler. The 52 House Re­pub­lic­ans from dis­tricts where Mc­Cain won at least 60 per­cent of the vote pro­duced an av­er­age con­ser­vat­ive score of nearly 83. The 33 mem­bers from dis­tricts where he won between 55 and 59 per­cent gen­er­ated a slightly more con­ser­vat­ive rank­ing of 84, and the num­ber fell only slightly, to 78, among the 54 law­makers in dis­tricts that Mc­Cain won with less than 55 per­cent of the vote. Even the 34 House Re­pub­lic­ans from dis­tricts that Obama car­ried com­piled an av­er­age con­ser­vat­ive score of 72 — only about 10 per­cent­age points less than those from the safest seats.

The story is sim­il­ar when look­ing at the House through a demo­graph­ic lens. In 2009, Na­tion­al Journ­al di­vided the cham­ber in­to four quad­rants based on wheth­er the share of the white pop­u­la­tion with col­lege de­grees ex­ceeded the 30.4 per­cent na­tion­al av­er­age, and wheth­er the dis­trict’s minor­ity pop­u­la­tion ex­ceeded 30 per­cent, the level that an earli­er NJ ana­lys­is found to be a re­veal­ing di­vid­ing line in elec­tion res­ults. (See “The Four Quad­rants of Con­gress,” NJ, 2/6/10, p. 20.)

In 2010, as in earli­er years, House Demo­crats from dis­tricts high in both di­versity and edu­ca­tion pos­ted much more lib­er­al scores than those from dis­tricts low on both meas­ures: the pre­dom­in­antly blue-col­lar small-town and rur­al seats rep­res­en­ted largely by mem­bers of the Demo­crat­ic Blue Dog co­ali­tion. Demo­crats from the “high-high” dis­tricts pos­ted an av­er­age lib­er­al score of 79, com­pared with an av­er­age lib­er­al score of 62 for those from the “low-low” dis­tricts. In stark con­trast, the 84 House Re­pub­lic­ans from low-low dis­tricts pos­ted the ex­act same 79.6 av­er­age con­ser­vat­ive rat­ing as the 30 Re­pub­lic­ans rep­res­ent­ing dis­tricts high in di­versity and edu­ca­tion.

Why did House Re­pub­lic­ans dis­play so much more ideo­lo­gic­al un­an­im­ity than Demo­crats? One reas­on is that the GOP’s sweep­ing losses in 2006 and 2008 re­duced the party mostly to strong Re­pub­lic­an seats in the past Con­gress, leav­ing few mem­bers with an ideo­lo­gic­al in­clin­a­tion or elect­or­al in­cent­ive to co­oper­ate with Obama. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a former chair­man of the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee, says that the am­bi­tious Demo­crat­ic agenda also helped Re­pub­lic­ans co­alesce in op­pos­i­tion — in the polit­ic­al equi­val­ent of New­ton’s prin­ciple that every ac­tion gen­er­ates an equal and op­pos­ite re­ac­tion. “I re­mem­ber when the stim­u­lus pack­age came up for a vote: There are 178 of us, we just got our clock cleaned, and the nor­mal re­ac­tion was to make peace with the win­ner,” Cole says. “And, of course, every single Re­pub­lic­an voted no. I re­mem­ber at the time some­body telling me, be­cause I’m a deputy whip, “˜You guys did such a great job whip­ping that.’ I said, “˜It really was not hard to whip.’ You can’t be a Re­pub­lic­an and be for this. Our mem­bers didn’t feel ag­on­ized.”

But the res­ults also re­flect a longer-term dy­nam­ic: Al­though both parties are grow­ing more ideo­lo­gic­ally ho­mo­gen­ous, the trend is af­fect­ing Re­pub­lic­ans more power­fully and more thor­oughly. Demo­crats re­main more of a co­ali­tion party than the GOP. The roots of that trend ex­tend to the found­a­tion of each party’s elect­or­al base. The Re­pub­lic­ans’ vot­ing co­ali­tion is much more ideo­lo­gic­ally uni­form than the Demo­crats’: About three-fourths of GOP voters identi­fy as con­ser­vat­ive, while only about two-fifths of Demo­crats con­sider them­selves lib­er­al, with the rest call­ing them­selves mod­er­ate or con­ser­vat­ive. That cre­ates a more con­sist­ent set of ex­pect­a­tions from the base for con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans than it does for Demo­crats, no mat­ter what part of the coun­try they rep­res­ent.

Be­cause about twice as many voters con­sider them­selves con­ser­vat­ives as lib­er­als, Re­pub­lic­ans are typ­ic­ally less de­pend­ent on sup­port from mod­er­ates to win elec­tions, which fur­ther amp­li­fies the con­ser­vat­ive in­flu­ence over the party’s elec­ted of­fi­cials. “The Demo­crats are al­ways go­ing to be frac­tious and di­vided if they want to as­pire to ma­jor­ity status,” says Jac­ob­son, the polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist. “That’s just the nature of their co­ali­tion. The Re­pub­lic­ans don’t have to be that broad; they can be much more uni­fied. Re­pub­lic­ans are now a con­ser­vat­ive and very con­ser­vat­ive co­ali­tion, and their share of mod­er­ates is minus­cule. The pres­sure right now is not com­ing from their cent­rists; it’s com­ing from their ex­trem­ists.”

The dif­fer­ence is already ap­par­ent in the early months of 2011. After last Novem­ber’s land­slide, House Re­pub­lic­ans hold 61 dis­tricts that Obama car­ried in 2008, but those GOP mem­bers are not stray­ing from the party agenda nearly as much as Mc­Cain-dis­trict Demo­crats did from their party’s pri­or­it­ies over the pre­vi­ous two years. Every House Re­pub­lic­an has voted to re­peal the Obama health care plan; all but two voted on Feb­ru­ary 18 to block the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency from reg­u­lat­ing car­bon emis­sions; and all but three (just one of them from a dis­trict that Obama won) sup­por­ted last week’s con­tinu­ing res­ol­u­tion on fund­ing that im­posed the largest do­mest­ic dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing cuts in mod­ern times. “The po­lar­iz­a­tion around here, the form­a­tion of two ho­mo­gen­ous parties at the poles, is really asym­met­ric­al,” says Rep. Dav­id Price, D-N.C., a former polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist. “The ideo­lo­gic­al co­he­sion and vot­ing dis­cip­line rep­res­ents a ho­mo­gen­iz­a­tion of the Re­pub­lic­an Party that just hasn’t taken place to the same ex­tent on the Demo­crat­ic side.”

At the broad­est level, the trends in NJ‘s vote rat­ings over the past three dec­ades track the de­cline of in­di­vidu­al­ism in Con­gress. Throughout con­gres­sion­al his­tory, the most re­spec­ted le­gis­lat­ors — from Henry Clay and Steph­en Douglas to Lyn­don John­son, Bob Dole, and Ed­ward Kennedy — have been those who through force of per­son­al­ity or in­tel­lect have been able to as­semble co­ali­tions and forge com­prom­ises that would not have co­alesced without them. Such per­son­al­ized acts of con­sensus-build­ing still oc­cur but much less fre­quently, and those who try face much steep­er walls of res­ist­ance to com­prom­ise. “You don’t have so much in­di­vidu­al­ism [any­more],” says Weick­er, now pres­id­ent of the Trust for Amer­ica’s Health.

Primar­ily, le­gis­lat­ors in both cham­bers (es­pe­cially the House) are asked to simply be foot sol­diers — to sup­port policy choices that their lead­er­ship forges, al­most al­ways in close con­sulta­tion with the con­stitu­ency groups cent­ral to the party’s co­ali­tion. Rather than be­ing her­al­ded as icon­o­clasts, those le­gis­lat­ors who de­vi­ate too of­ten from that cent­rally dir­ec­ted con­sensus now face pres­sure from their col­leagues; a cold shoulder from lead­er­ship; blis­ter­ing cri­ti­cism from the overtly par­tis­an me­dia aligned with each side; and, with grow­ing fre­quency, primary chal­lenges bank­rolled by power­ful party in­terest groups. “A lot of these in­sti­tu­tions have be­come [ideo­lo­gic­ally] mono­lith­ic in their own right, and that just re­in­forces the polit­ic­al di­vide,” the Her­it­age Found­a­tion’s Franc says. “If you are a cha­ris­mat­ic sen­at­or or House mem­ber who wants to change an is­sue, you are go­ing to be swim­ming not just against your own caucus but all of these out­side in­terests and the blo­go­sphere.”

In all of these ways, Con­gress func­tions as a more top-down, par­lia­ment­ary-style in­sti­tu­tion — the res­ults of which are evid­ent in the re­lent­less sep­ar­a­tion between the parties and the de­cline of mav­er­icks in NJ‘s vote rat­ings. Mean­while, the res­ults from the 2006, ‘08, and ‘10 elec­tions sug­gest that con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns as well are op­er­at­ing in a par­lia­ment­ary man­ner, in which as­sess­ments of in­di­vidu­al can­did­ates mat­ter less than broad judg­ments about the two parties. Put an­oth­er way, in­creas­ingly in con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns (es­pe­cially for the House), it ap­pears that the col­or on the front of the jer­sey mat­ters more than the name on the back. That means mem­bers have less abil­ity to sep­ar­ate them­selves from at­ti­tudes about their party by vot­ing against key ele­ments of its agenda.

That trend screams from the latest House vote rank­ings. House Demo­crats who broke the most of­ten from the party’s lib­er­al con­sensus — the agenda that con­trib­uted to last Novem­ber’s voter back­lash — suffered by far the greatest losses in that elec­tion. Among the 81 most lib­er­al House Demo­crats, just one who sought reelec­tion was de­feated (the Demo­crats lost the seat of one oth­er who re­tired). By con­trast, among the 98 Demo­crats with the most-mod­er­ate scores, 45 who sought reelec­tion were de­feated and the party lost the seats of 10 oth­ers who re­tired. Those le­gis­lat­ors didn’t lose be­cause they com­piled more-con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords, but neither was their dis­tan­cing suf­fi­cient to save them from the tide that cres­ted against their party in all but the safest Demo­crat­ic dis­tricts.

“What you’re see­ing now is, it’s harder to sur­vive [a wave],” Price says. “The sur­viv­al tech­niques that people ad­op­ted in these swing dis­tricts are less work­able now. The elec­tions be­come na­tion­al­ized, and it’s a harder en­vir­on­ment for mem­bers to de­ploy their usu­al sur­viv­al tac­tics, like con­stitu­ent ser­vice, and be­ing nice people, and all the things mem­bers have coun­ted on to pro­tect them.”

The 2012 elec­tion will test how heav­ily these pat­terns ex­tend in­to races for the Sen­ate, where can­did­ates typ­ic­ally have es­tab­lished more in­de­pend­ence from gen­er­al at­ti­tudes about their party, largely be­cause they be­come bet­ter known than House mem­bers. Many of the Sen­ate Demo­crats fa­cing tough races next year com­piled some of their party’s most con­ser­vat­ive vot­ing re­cords — among them Ben Nel­son, Bill Nel­son of Flor­ida, Claire Mc­Caskill of Mis­souri, and Test­er. But the past three elec­tions sug­gest that that may be thin in­su­la­tion un­less at­ti­tudes about the over­all Demo­crat­ic agenda and Obama im­prove in their right-lean­ing states. “One les­son “¦ is you can­not loc­al­ize elec­tions like this,” says Mat­thew Ben­nett, vice pres­id­ent of Third Way, a cent­rist Demo­crat­ic group. “You are a Demo­crat and an Obama Demo­crat “¦ [and] you had bet­ter find a way of ex­plain­ing what you did and put­ting in con­text what he did, be­cause that is go­ing to define you.”

One fi­nal ques­tion raised by the long-term trends in NJ‘s vote rat­ings is wheth­er a Con­gress at­tuned to these quasi-par­lia­ment­ary le­gis­lat­ive and elect­or­al rhythms is more or less re­flect­ive of pub­lic opin­ion than the more flu­id and un­struc­tured in­sti­tu­tion of earli­er gen­er­a­tions. Ben­nett says that the po­lar­iz­a­tion evid­ent in the rat­ings has pro­duced a Con­gress more di­vided than the coun­try. “There’s been a lot of sort­ing out that has gone on the elect­or­ate, and there’s no ques­tion that dis­tricts and states are bright­er hues of red and blue than they used to be,” he says. “But in ag­greg­ate, the plur­al­ity of the elect­or­ate is still mod­er­ate, and they are the most un­der­rep­res­en­ted cat­egory of voters at the mo­ment.”

Cole, the Ok­lahoma Re­pub­lic­an, dis­agrees. He be­lieves that the harden­ing lines between the parties in Wash­ing­ton re­flect a widen­ing dis­agree­ment in the coun­try over “fun­da­ment­al first prin­ciples” re­volving around the role of gov­ern­ment. “Most of the Re­pub­lic­ans I talk to, and my con­stitu­ents, really be­lieve that what’s at stake is, we are go­ing to be a fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent Amer­ica on the oth­er side of these [Obama] policies, and they feel it really strongly,” he says. “It’s not cre­ated by the sys­tem, not cre­ated by Wash­ing­ton politi­cians, but is a really pro­found de­bate that is be­gin­ning to emerge about what kind of coun­try we are go­ing to be.”

With all signs in­dic­at­ing that that de­bate will roar through Wash­ing­ton for the rest of Obama’s term, no one should ex­pect the sys­tem­at­ic sep­ar­a­tion of the parties that defines NJ‘s latest vote rat­ings to re­verse any­time soon. Pulling apart has settled in as a de­fin­ing char­ac­ter­ist­ic of polit­ic­al life in mod­ern Wash­ing­ton.

Contributions by Scott Bland

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