What Rep. Watkins teaches us about party and ideology

Rank-and-file legislators know which side their bread is buttered on.

Political scientists have made a parlor game of calculating ideology scores for elected officials based on their voting records. The gold standard for the US Congress is the DW-NOMINATE algorithm; you can find those scores back to the founding at Keith Poole’s voteview.com. Shor and McCarty have calculated similar scores for legislatures from all 50 states.

Just for fun, I apply the W-NOMINATE algorithm each year to the Utah Legislature to infer each legislator’s relative ideology. Let me give some caveats first.

Caveat #1: These scores have no absolute meaning; there is no score that means “conservative” or “liberal,” for example. But they do have relative meaning; if Legislator A has a higher score than Legislator B, then we can say that Legislator A has a voting record to the right of Legislator B. But to be clear, the highest score is not necessarily the “most conservative” or “most Republican” score, since somebody from the lunatic fringe could get a very extremely far-right or far-left score.

Caveat #2: Sometimes I hear of legislators boasting to the party faithful that I gave them the “most conservative” score. That is a misuse of these data. See Caveat #1.

Caveat #3: I calculate these scores separately each year. Because these scores have no absolute scale, that means you can’t compare a score from one year to a score for another. Nor can you compare a House score to a Senate score–if you want to do that, use the Shor-McCarty scores instead.

Having said all that, take a look at the distribution of scores for the 2017 Utah House. (You can find the Senate, or other years of the House, here.) I constrain scores to fall between -100 (more liberal) and +100 (more conservative). Again, the midpoint doesn’t mean “moderate,” it means “the middle of the House,” which will be a pretty conservative position. Here’s the 2017 Utah House, with a “D” marking each Democrat’s score and an “R” marking each Republican’s:

Ideology - Watkins 2017

See the one that I highlighted? That’s Rep. Christine Watkins. She served 4 years as a Democrat from 2009-2012. After losing reelection, she switched parties and rejoined the Legislature this year (after a 4-year absence), this time as a Republican. Now take a look at the distribution of ideology scores for the 2012 Utah House, Rep. Watkins’s last year as a Democrat. I’ve highlighted her again.

Ideology - Watkins 2012

Now, I realize I just said you can’t compare a score from one year to a score from another. But we’re not doing that. We’re comparing her relative position in one year to her relative position in another. In 2012, she was within the Democratic mainstream, though on the conservative side. In 2017, she was within the Republican mainstream, though on the liberal side.

Let’s look at this another way. If you look up Rep. Watkins (2017) in my “who votes together” tool, you’ll find that the person she voted with most often in 2017 was  (drumroll please) Speaker Greg Hughes. They voted together 95.3% of the time. Meanwhile, out of her 74 House colleagues, she voted less often with Democratic minority leader Brian King than with all but 6 of colleagues (also Democrats).

Now back up to 2012. If you look up Rep. Watkins (2012) in my “who votes together” tool, you’ll find that she voted with Brian King 93.5% of the time that year. (He wasn’t minority leader that year, but let’s use him for comparison anyway.) She voted with him more often than anybody else that year, except for 2 other Democrats who barely edged him out. What a difference 4 years make.

To be clear, this is not a post about Rep. Watkins. It’s a post about the dance of ideology and partisanship. It’s possible that she experienced a profound ideological conversion during her absence from the Legislature. It’s more likely that we’re seeing the influence of party leadership on her floor voting. I don’t mean to imply that party leaders told her how to vote, but rather that rank-and-file legislators know which side their bread is buttered on.

You can find ideology scores for all legislators here. And you can find my “who votes together” tool here.

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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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