Say it ain’t so, Dr. Joe! (And More Specter fallout)

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Leading the news today is Dr. Joe Biden’s medical advice, issued on the Today show, that people should avoid riding in airplanes, or taking the subway, or using other forms of mass transit.  Never mind that health officials don’t agree with Dr. Joe – he’s the vice president!  With one foot-in-mouth moment, Dr. Joe singlehandedly counteracts the impact of the $800 billion stimulus bill. We love this guy!  (So does the President, I am certain.)

Now, in response to your inquiries, more on the Specter decision. Several of you have asked why I discount the political science research showing that a switch in party labels usually leads to a switch in voting patterns.  In fact, based on that research, most political scientists that I know believe Specter’s voting pattern will now move quickly and significantly to the Left (see here, for example).

The reason why I don’t believe this is necessarily the case is because that research is based on House switchers, not Senate switchers. In addition to the differences in how the two chambers operate (the House is designed to empower the majority party as a voting bloc, the Senate operates on a more individualistic basis), House districts are almost always smaller, and more ideologically homogeneous.  Senators, on the other hand, represent typically larger and more ideologically diverse states.  As a result, House incumbents usually are less vulnerable to electoral defeat (their reelection rates hover in the mid 90% range), and find it easier to stake out a more partisan voting position congruent with the majority of voters in their district.  Not so for Senators, who typically face stronger challengers who are more effective at using their voting record against them, and who must appeal to a more diverse electorate.   That’s why I am skeptical that previous research on party switching based on the House is applicable to the Senate.

But this provides the opportunity for a natural experiment.  According to Simon Jackman (see chart below), Specter now ranks as the third most liberal Republican in the current (111th) Senate.  (These rankings are based on the Nominate scores – moving Left, along the negative numbers, means you are more liberal, right toward positive numbers is more conservative. The Senators are broken into two columns to save space.)

If I’m right, Specter’s voting record should keep him somewhere in the middle of the Senate pack, ideologically, over the course of the next two years.  If my poli sci colleagues are correct, he should move sharply left closer to the middle of the Democratic Senate voting ranks (say, into Dianne Feinstein/Harry Reid territory).   So we can revisit this issue in two years!

So, why did Specter switch parties?  Largely because of the fallout from the stimulus bill – another reminder why bipartisanship is so difficult in today’s polarized climate.  A March Quinnipiac poll of Pennsylvania voters found the following (see poll here): “Overall Pennsylvania voters have a 45 – 31 percent favorable opinion of Sen. Specter, but he gets a 47 – 29 percent unfavorable score from Republicans. The Republican gets a 60 – 16 percent thumbs up from Democrats and a 41 – 35 percent positive from independent voters.” Much of that disapproval is rooted in Specter’s support of the stimulus package. “Specter’s support of President Barack Obama’s Stimulus Package wins 87 – 6 percent support from Democrats and 56 – 38 percent support from independent voters, while Republican voters disapprove 70 – 25 percent.”  It is not a good sign when your own party’s constituents disown you. As a result, he was likely to lose if he ran in the Republican primary against the less well known Republican Congressman Pat Toomey.  The Quinnipiac poll found Specter trailing Toomey 41 – 27 percent in a Republican primary for the 2010 Senate race, with 28 percent undecided.  A more recent Rasmussen poll (see here) of likely Republican primary voters has Specter getting crushed by Toomey, 51%-30%. More generally, Specter’s approval ratings began nosing downward after the stimulus vote, although he still has more favorable than unfavorable support among all voters.

There are two lessons to draw from this.  First, if Specter has negotiated an understanding with leading Democrats to clear the field of potential challengers in the Democratic Pennsylvania Senate primary (as it appears to be the case), then he has a strong shot at winning the general election for another term as Pennsylvania Senator.  But that wouldn’t happen as a Republican; he wasn’t likely to make it out of the Republican primary.

My larger point is to reiterate an earlier observation: it is often said by pundits, particularly those on the Left, that the Republicans have become the party of “NO”, unalterably opposed to anything Obama proposes.  But the reality, as Specter discovered, is that many Republicans on Capitol Hill face a potential backlash among their core Republican voters in the primary if they appear to support programs that involve increased spending and a greater government role in the economy.  From this perspective, Republican opposition to much of Obama’s program is perfectly logical (and quite predictable).  As an aside, note that Obama doesn’t seem to grasp this, at least not based on his public statements.  Last night during his press conference, he once again reiterated his reminder to Republicans that, “we won.”   Of course, as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, from the perspective of individual members of Congress, this is not the case – Obama ran behind most of them, and of course didn’t win very many Republican districts at all.

Aside to Jack, Vijay and Marty:  I don’t have polling data on Tom Ridge versus Specter, but I think Ridge is precisely the kind of Republican who would make it difficult for Specter to win in the general election. However, (for reasons Vijay alludes to in his comment on my earlier post) Ridge would also have to get through the Republican primary – not a sure thing, although he doesn’t have the baggage of a stimulus vote to defend.  Also, I don’t think he has lived in Pennsylvania in some time, although given his history there that may not make a difference to voters.  For what it is worth, here’s Ridge’s statement on Specter’s defection:

“I’ve known Arlen Specter for many years. In no way does his departure from the Republican Party diminish his long record of service to his country and to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

“As Arlen will understand, my support is with my Party and with the people of my home state, whom I believe can best be served in the Senate by the GOP.

“So let’s begin the discussion of ideas with a respectful contest as Pennsylvania and the nation continue to work collectively through these challenging times.”

Does that mean Ridge is jumping into the race?  I have no idea.  As for the “Club for Growth” and PAC’s more generally, as my colleague Bert Johnson’s research reminds us, the power of PACs to shape elections appears to have diminished a bit compared to the relative impact of campaign contributions from strongly partisan individuals.  I hope to post on this more extensively.  In any case, I wouldn’t suggest that Specter is the victim of an orchestrated party purge, so much as he fell prey to diminishing enthusiasm among likely Republican voters.  There is a fascinating story here on why politics is increasingly polarized and I hope to discuss it more fully in later posts.

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