It’s Not Rocket Science: Explaining the Sotamayor Vote

It’s not rocket science – it’s political science.

In the wake of the Senate vote to confirm Sonia Sotamayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court (see the NY Times story here), some pundits are scratching their heads trying to explain how 31 Republicans could have voted against her. By doing so, these pundits argue, Republicans needlessly risk alienating Latino voters.  And yet sophisticated statistical analyses seem to suggest that the number of Hispanic constituents in a Senator’s state had very little relation to how that Senator voted.   This has left some pundits scrambling to explain what might have motivated Republican voters.  Thus, Nate Silver, using regression analysis, suggests Republicans might have been more worried about alienating the NRA – which came out against Sotamayor’s nomination – than about losing Latino voters (see here).  I have a good deal of respect for Silver’s methodological skills (if not his political judgment) but I think Silver’s explanation, like that of many pundits who have weighed in on this issue, is needlessly complex and betrays a basic misunderstanding of political fundamentals.  As I suggested in an earlier post, the Sotamayor nomination wasn’t likely to turn on the issue of race (or interest group pressure)- it turned on political ideology.  Votes on court nominees are largely votes about ideology. (My suspicion, without seeing Silver’s numbers, is that his use of the NRA in his regression simply serves as a proxy for Senate ideology).  A vote for Sotamayor was a vote for what is almost certainly going to be a consistently liberal voice on the Court.  This suggests that only the most liberal Republicans would consider voting for her.  And this is precisely what happened. Consider the nine Senate Republicans who voted to confirm Sotamayor:

George Voinovich of Ohio;

Judd Gregg of New Hampshire;

Kit Bond of Missouri;

Lindsey Graham of South Carolina;

Susan Collins of Maine;

Olympia Snowe of Maine;

Mel Martinez of Florida;

Richard Lugar of Indiana;

Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

How many of these Senators represent states with a significant Latino population?  Only Martinez, from Florida, a state with the third highest number of Latinos (about 3.3 million).   But how do they rank in terms of ideology?  There are currently 40 Republicans Senators. Let’s list the top 9 most liberal Republican Senators, using Simon Jackman’s ideological rankings (see here), beginning with the most liberal and working toward more conservative, and see where those who voted for Sotamayor fall on this list.

To make my point more obvious, I will place the two lists side by side; on the left are the top 9 most liberal Republican Senators, and on the right are the 9 Senators who voted FOR Sotamayor.  See if you can detect a pattern!:

Most Liberal Republicans in the Senate (in order beginning with most Liberal) Nine Republican Senators Voting for Sotamayor
Olympia Snowe – Maine Snowe
Susan Collins – Maine Collins
George Voinovich – Ohio Voinovich
Debra Murkowski – Arkansas Graham
Richard Lugar – Indiana Lugar
Mel Martinez – Florida Martinez
Kit Bond – Missouri Bond
Lamar Alexander – Tennessee Alexander
Judd Gregg – New Hampshire Gregg

At the risk of stating the obvious, support for Sotamayor among Republicans Senators came from 9 of the 10 most liberal Republican Senators (only Murkowski among liberal Senators voted against her).  It was ideology, not race or ethnicity that drove this vote, much as I surmised in my earlier post when arguing why Republicans ought to vote against her.  And this is why Jon Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, who represent Texas which has the second largest Latino population in the country, nonetheless felt comfortable voting against Sotamayor.  Texas may be 20% Latino, but it voted Republican in the 2008 presidential election.  My point is not that Republicans don’t care about Latino voters – they do.  But they also can’t ignore their core voters who support them every six years.

When it comes to politics, sometimes the simplest explanations are the best explanations.

Oh, by the way, I’ll be keeping that t-shirt. At least until the next contest.


  1. Do you think it could also be said that Republicans voted the way they did because alienating is a less immediate—if not more dangerous—threat than alienating conservatives? In Texas, for example, Latinos are an influential voting bloc, but they have yet to singlehandedly influence elections.

    Kay Bailey is in a gubernatorial primary battle with Rick Perry right now, and while she is incredibly popular with the population at large, he is more popular with the very conservative sector that votes in the Republican primary, so she has been trying to shore up her conservative credentials. Similarly, John Cornyn has been elected on the back of hardcore conservatives, rather than a broad coalition.

    Both senators, I suspect, would rather avoid alienating Latinos for the long term health of their party, but both need conservative votes right now, and feel the need to sacrifice long term goals for short term survival.

  2. Fraz – I think you’ve hit on part of the explanation, but the larger part is that the Senate vote really turned on ideology. Even in the long term, Senators and Representatives from Republican districts generally have more to fear from losing support from their base voters than from Latino voters. What you need to be careful about is confusing national considerations (e.g., support among Latinos for the Republican party) with the factors that influence how members of Congress vote. They don’t look at national figures – they look at their own constituents’ preferences.

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