Why is Becky Lockhart the new speaker?

Don’t be too quick to conclude that leadership style alone decided the Speaker’s race, or that outside actors were decisive, or that money bought the Speaker’s race. It looks like Lockhart could have won on ideology alone.

Officially, the battle for speaker was not decided on ideological grounds. In explaining her narrow victory over David Clark in the Speaker’s race, Becky Lockhart explained that many House Republicans were simply tired of Clark’s “heavy hand.” Maybe. But it seems likely that ideology also played a role.

If we set aside other factors, we would expect that House Republicans would elect the most “representative” House Republican as their leader–that is, the member whose views most reflect the caucus’s. Political scientists call this the median voter theorem. The theorem isn’t perfect. This logic assumes, for example, that personality and leadership skill have no role, which is almost certainly untrue. But bear with me for a moment and see what an ideology-based analysis suggests.

Utah House Republicans shown from most moderate (top) to most conservative (bottom). Clark is in red, Lockhart in blue. Yellow highlighting indicates the median member. If there is an even number of legislators, then there are two medians. Click to enlarge.

Based on interest group ratings of each Utah legislator,1 David Clark’s views placed him exactly in the middle of the House Republican caucus ideologically at the end of the 2008 legislative session. It was only natural, then, that House Republicans would make him speaker prior to the 2009 session. This appears to be a perfect manifestation of the median voter theorem. (Click the small thumbnail image at right to see a table showing how this works. The thumbnail’s caption explains what’s going on.)

Following the 2010 legislative session, interest group scores still placed David Clark closer to the middle of the House Republican caucus than Becky Lockhart (see the middle column in the table). Based on this, we might have expected Clark to stay on as Speaker.

But then something happened. In November, House Republicans picked up 5 seats formerly held by Democrats, increasing the House Republican caucus from 53 to 58 members. Many of these newcomers appear to be conservative, not moderate (e.g. Lavar Christensen).

Moreover, 10 incumbent Republicans either voluntary retired (e.g. Sheryl Allen) or lost in primary challenges (e.g. Steve Mascaro). Every departing Republican was more moderate than Clark, and many of the newcomers strike me as more conservative than him. If we assume that all the newcomers are at least as conservative as Lockhart (not a stretch, although I can’t be sure until after the 2011 session), then Lockhart would lie exactly at the center of the new House Republican caucus. (See the right-hand column in the table.)

Add in non-ideological issues like those “heavy hand” complaints, and you swing a couple additional votes (e.g. Mel Brown). But it looks to me like Lockhart could have beat Clark based on ideology alone.

Punchline: Don’t be too quick to conclude that leadership style alone decided the Speaker’s race, or that outside actors were decisive, or that money bought the Speaker’s race. It looks like Lockhart could have won on ideology alone. The new House Republican caucus chose a more conservative leader because the caucus itself is more conservative. Other explanations give Lockhart herself too little credit.

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About Adam Brown

Adam Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young University and a research fellow with the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. You can learn more about him at his website.
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