Expert Commentary

One vote out of step? The effects of salient roll-call votes in the 2010 election

2012 study published in American Politics Research on how the health care reform roll-call vote may have hurt Democrats.

Among the most consequential — and controversial — roll-call votes that members of Congress cast during President Obama’s first term were those on cap-and-trade legislation, the economic stimulus and, of course, health care reform. How these votes subsequently affected legislators who ran for reelection in 2010 is of acute interest both to political scientists who study the interplay between votes and election consequences, and to campaign observers who are assessing the reverberations of these votes.

A 2012 study published in American Politics Research, “One Vote Out of Step? The Effects of Salient Roll Call Votes in the 2010 Election,” examines survey data from the 2010 Cooperative Congressional Election Study and analyzes the responses of more than 28,000 voters living in some 230 districts where a Democratic incumbent faced a Republican challenger. A joint effort by scholars at George Washington University, Dartmouth College, the University of Denver, North Carolina State University and the Public Policy Institute of California, the study sought to isolate how roll call votes changed the electorate’s perceptions of individual legislators’ ideological leanings and, ultimately, how much these roll call votes cost Democrats in terms of seats lost in the 2010 mid-term elections.

The study’s findings include:

  • For Democratic legislators who voted for health care reform, the vote shifted voter perceptions, particularly among independents and Republicans: “Taken as a whole, our individual-level results suggest that Democratic incumbents’ support for a controversial piece of legislation — health care reform — led respondents to perceive them as more liberal and more ideologi­cally distant even after accounting for their overall voting record.”
  • A Democratic legislator’s vote for health care resulted in, on average, a 4.5% loss of vote share in his or her district, “largely because of the effects of this roll call vote on perceived ideological distance.”
  • In 2010, Democrats lost 63 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. But using counter-factual scenarios and vote simulations in which Democrats in competitive districts (where President Obama received less than 60% of the vote in 2008) instead voted “no” on health care reform, Democrats typically win 25 or more additional seats than they actually did in the 2010 election, giving them enough to retain control of the House. Their actual votes on this bill, in other words, “may have cost them control of the chamber.”
  • More generally, the findings suggest a mechanism through which legislative votes can change subsequent vote share: “Controversial roll call votes — or, more likely, the publicity that they generate in the news media and in campaign communications — can shift constituents’ perceptions of their representative’s ideology.”

While the study’s results are statistically significant, the authors caution that their use of a hypothetical brings with it certain assumptions: “We have no way of knowing, for example, whether more Democratic dissent in the House would have doomed the health care bill and thereby led voters to see the Obama presidency and Democratic Congress as failures. It is also pos­sible that the failure of health care reform would have demobilized some Democratic donors, interest groups and voters in 2010.”

Tags: Congress, elections, presidency, health care reform