Observing and Learning from Politicians: Why Going Home is Needed Now More than Ever

by David C.W. Parker

In 2011, Montana’s lone Congressman, Republican Denny Rehberg announced that he would run for the Senate seat held by Democratic freshman Jon Tester. The race was one of the most competitive Senate contests during the 2102 cycle, with nearly every public poll conducted over the next 20 months showing the race tied statistically. After more than $50 million spent on television, radio, mail, and GOTV by the parties, candidates, and nearly 30 outside groups, Tester won reelection by less than four points.

I was fortunate to have a front row seat for the campaign. Both Congressman Rehberg and Senator Tester allowed me unprecedented access during the race and, after the campaign, to their staffs. I documented in my forthcoming book with CQ Press, Battle for the Big Sky: Representation and the Politics of Place in the Race for the U.S. Senate, the electoral consequences of the representational relationships both candidates had established with Montanans. Much like Richard Fenno’s pioneering work, I soaked and poked my way through the campaign while documenting the pre-political and early political careers of the candidates. Unsurprisingly, I conclude that campaigns can affect the outcome of elections.

As I reflect about the many lessons I learned on the campaign trail, one stands above the rest. As many of you watch competitive Senate races this cycle, you’ve probably heard that Democratic Senate candidates vote with Barack Obama a lot. Congressman Cory Gardner in Colorado, for example, tells Coloradoans that Senator Mark Udall votes with Barack Obama 99 percent of the time according to his 2013 CQ Presidential Support score. Here in Montana in 2012, ads sponsored by Rehberg, the Republican Party, and outside groups cited ad nauseam the claim that Senator Tester voted with Obama 95 percent of the time.

One of my clearest memories during the campaign was an exchange I had with Aaron Murphy, Tester’s communications director. Murphy claimed that the Presidential Support Score calculated by CQ was some “random number” calculated by some Washington insiders. I called Aaron to dispute this. It is not some “random number”, but a metric that is carefully calculated according to precise rules and it is widely employed by political scientists studying Congress. It has face validity and provides a good thumbnail sketch of how supportive members of Congress are (or not) of an administration. Aaron pushed back, saying that the number does not, by any means, tell the whole story of Tester’s record. In fact, Tester—as Montana’s Senator—had developed a solid record of independence that is not reflected by the 95 percent figure.

It turns out that Aaron was right. Not that the number is random, but that it is a flawed metric.

The presidential support score, as calculated, does not tell us as much as we might think about a representative’s relationship to a presidential administration. And, if I might be so bold, political scientists are doing a great disservice to the study of politics by oversimplifying the legislative process by repairing to mindless empirical reductionism. Make no mistake: I am not the naysaying baseball scout Grady Fuson from the movie “Moneyball.” Quantification has allowed political science to develop tremendous insight into the practice of politics. But, at the same time, quantification run amok has unnecessarily narrowed the research questions we ask, the research agendas we pursue, and creates a distance from politicians and politics that hinders the construction of new theory, new observation, and new metrics.

Consider the Presidential Support Score. It records the votes of members of Congress on issues on which the administration sees fit to take a stance publically. The score includes some votes that are essentially non-controversial—and this is particularly true in the case of the Senate, where many votes to appoint executive branch officials and judges receive widespread bipartisan support. As I note in Battle for the Big Sky, Tester’s rating of 95 percent drops to 85 percent once these noncontroversial votes are removed from the mix using a procedure established by Bond, Fleisher, and Northrup (1992).

But, more distressing, is the fixation political science has with this blunt measure of such a complex phenomenon. As political scientists, we accept as axiomatic that roll call voting only represents a portion of the jobs that members of Congress do and only a slice of position-taking type activities. David Mayhew (2000) cleverly reminds of this by developing a richer metric of the ways in which members of Congress engage in the public sphere. Mayhew canvasses the historical record for examples of the actions that members of Congress take that receive the attention of historians. Only half of the actions taken by members of Congress in the public sphere are position-taking on roll call votes. Emphasizing roll call votes—which are easily obtained and scaled—puts too many of our empirical eggs in one basket and biases our view of what legislators do.

To return to the presidential support score, there are a host of other ways that members of Congress can and do demonstrate their relationship to an administration. Take, just as one example, the communications members of Congress send to executive branch officials. Members of Congress often write to agencies before, during, and after the rule making process to protest certain administrative actions. In 2012, when the Department of Labor attempted to apply workplace safety rules to family farms, the Obama administration heard loud protests from Montana’s congressional delegation. Tester alone introduced legislation to stop the rules from going into effect, sent letters to the Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis protesting the rules, and took to the Senate floor to remonstrate against the Department of Labor’s regulations. None of these position-taking actions were represented by a roll call vote in opposition to the administration. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if this reflects 95 percent support of Barack Obama.

And even roll call votes themselves are increasingly misleading as omnibus legislation and resolutions dominate a gridlocked legislature. In mid-September, the House and Senate both approved an appropriations measure that would continue to fund government after October 1, 2014. That same resolution contained language and funds allowing the administration to train and aid Syrian rebels, “$88 million in additional funding to combat the Ebola epidemic, $64 million for the Department of Veterans Affairs and $6 million for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program, which helps low-income people obtain nutritious food” (Shabad and Cox 2014). The administration supported the bill, but did a vote for the funding of government signify support for the administration? Did it signify the desire merely to avoid a shut down? Did it signify support for the president’s request to authorize air strikes? Was it a vote to fight Ebola or help poor people in need of food? That vote carried multiple meanings, but it will probably be scored by CQ as supporting the administration even though a vote for it or against it could explained variously depending upon where one sits.

The outlook is not all dim for political science and the study of representation. Justin Grimmer’s (2013, 2014) recent work shows how the tools of textual analysis can illuminate how members of Congress chose to communicate and connect with constituents. Greg Koger’s (2010) wonderful book on the filibuster emphasizes sequence, context, and timing whilst taking aim squarely at the wrongheaded assumption of single-peaked preferences. Neither follow politicians around, but both demonstrate both a complex understanding of politics combined with sophisticated quantitative analyses.

But we don’t have to rely upon Stata and R alone to make insights into the political process. Spending time with politicians reminds us that representation and legislating are complex concepts difficult to nail down precisely with just one or two measures. The more exposure we get as political scientists to how politicians do their jobs, the more we see and the better the theories we develop. As I write in the final chapter of my book, political scientists just don’t “do” Fenno anymore. That’s a shame because Richard Fenno’s soaking and poking did not exhaust the sights for political science to take in. There is still much to see and learn. We ought to start doing it—on the campaign trail, in Washington, and through the use of congressional archives where we can observe the second face of power. The end result makes our research more accessible, more relevant, and ultimately, theoretically richer.

Dr. Parker is an associate professor of political science at Montana State University. He is the author of The Power of Money in Congressional Campaigns, 1880-2006 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press), as well as articles on the consequences of divided government and how members of Congress build reputations with their constituents. His article, “Making a Good Impression: Resource Allocations, Home Styles, and Washington Work,” won the 2010 Alan Rosenthal Award from the American Political Science Association. His co-edited volume on archival research methodology, Doing Archival Work in Political Science, was published by Cambria press.


The New Wild West: Colorado and Legalized Recreational Marijuana

by Courtenay W. Daum

Imagine a world where parents legally unwind with a joint instead of a glass of wine after a long day , weddings have marijuana bars to complement bars serving alcoholic beverages, and treats such as candy and cookies are forbidden to children not because of high sugar content but because they are laced with THC. You need not look far because this is the new state of affairs in Colorado which became the first state to legalize and launch recreational marijuana in 2014.

In Colorado, citizens may use the initiative process—petitions are circulated and if enough valid signatures are obtained the question is put to the voters of the state—to place policy and revenue issues on the ballot as an exercise in direct democracy. In November 2012, a majority of Colorado voters approved Amendment 64 on “Use and Regulation of Marijuana” and legalized the sale and consumption of recreational marijuana as well as industrial hemp within the state. Shortly thereafter, Governor John Hickenlooper convened a taskforce to draft regulations for the implementation and regulation of recreational marijuana sales and consumption, and on January 1, 2014 the first recreational stores opened to adults age 21 and older. While Amendment 64 decriminalized private possession of one ounce or less of marijuana by adults 21 years and older across the state, local governments retain discretion on allowing retail establishments within their borders as well as the authority to implement time, place, and manner restrictions resulting in variation across the state.

Despite the numerous regulations and revenue laws passed by the state in advance of the 2014 launch, new issues have presented themselves in the past nine months and additional government regulations have been devised in response to unforeseen developments. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest challenges associated with legalized recreational marijuana is securing the large amounts of cash coming into retail establishments. Due to the fact that federal laws criminalize marijuana, retailers in Colorado are struggling to find safe outlets for their revenue because banks subject to federal laws are unwilling to accept their money out of fear that they will be charged with violating federal laws including the RICO Act and prohibitions on money laundering and aiding suspicious and illegal activities. This has led to some bizarre developments including retailers laundering their money in Febreeze to remove the smell of marijuana in order to deposit the cash in their bank accounts. In response to these banking challenges, Colorado passed a law in June authorizing the establishment of marijuana banking cooperatives but the viability of this option is limited because the U.S. Federal Reserve is unlikely to sanction these entities. In a recent Forbes article, a leading marijuana retailer in Colorado was asked where the company keeps its money and he responded “We actually have strong banking relationships…[but w]e don’t talk about them. Asking someone about their banking is like asking them what they wear to bed at night. It’s an intensely personal question, even within the industry.” This evasive response reflects the complicated relationship among banks, the federal government and the marijuana industry. It is clear that some banks are allowing marijuana businesses to operate accounts but these relationships are incredibly covert given the risks. Yet, the lack of viable banking options creates practical and logistical problems for business owners as well as government efforts to regulate and tax marijuana sales not to mention the safety concerns associated with a multi-million dollar primarily cash industry that has limited access to financial institutions.

Another major issue and one that may have taken retailers and the government by surprise relates to the regulation and consumption of edible marijuana products. Due to the fact that edibles often take the form of baked goods and candies there have been numerous reports of children (and house pets) consuming the products unaware that these foods are laced with THC resulting in emergency room visits. Adults have struggled with edibles as well because when an individual eats or drinks marijuana products the onset of the drug is often delayed whereas smoking marijuana results in an immediate high. As a result of these differences, many individuals purchasing edibles consume an entire cookie or candy bar without realizing that one item contains multiple doses of THC. The results of edible overdoses may be catastrophic as exemplified by the death of a young man who leapt from the roof of a building in downtown Denver after consuming an entire marijuana cookie that contained approximately 6.5 servings of THC. In a now infamous editorial, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd described her own experience overdosing on a marijuana candy bar on a visit to Denver as follows, “I lay curled up in a hallucinatory state for the next eight hours. I was thirsty but couldn’t move to get water. Or even turn off the lights. I was panting and paranoid, sure that when the room-service waiter knocked and I didn’t answer, he’d call the police and have me arrested for being unable to handle my candy.”

In response to the myriad problems resulting from the consumption of edibles, Colorado issued new regulations governing serving sizes and labeling requirements that will take effect in February 2015. In the meantime, distributors are taking steps to address these issues including producing “rookie” versions of edible products and beverages that contain minimal amounts of THC to ensure that individuals consuming an entire cookie, piece of chocolate or beverage will not become totally inebriated. In addition, many marijuana stores distribute guidelines on edible consumption and the industry has launched a public service campaign that spreads the motto “Low and Slow” encouraging individuals to begin with a low dosage (5 milligrams) and not rush to take another dose until they feel the effects of the prior dose.

Other issues include the challenges associated with prosecuting individuals charged with driving while high, public consumption of marijuana, weed tourism, and the movement of marijuana from Colorado to neighboring states where it is prohibited consistent with state and federal laws. In addition, the people of Colorado remain divided about the legal recreational marijuana industry. Both the Republican and Democratic candidates for Governor this election cycle have stated that they oppose recreational marijuana but according to a recent poll, fifty-five percent of Coloradans support it. Given that Amendment 64 was a popular initiative and passed directly by the voters, the only way to overturn the law within the state is to return the issue to the voters and ask a majority of them to repeal it. There are two ways to place a repeal question on the ballot in Colorado: 1) citizens’ initiative via petition and 2) a 2/3 vote of the state legislature. Of the two, the first is likely to be a more viable option because Colorado only requires approximately 86,000 valid signatures—a number equal to five percent of the votes cast in the previous election for Secretary of States—to get an initiative on the ballot. Yet, given continued popular support for legalized recreational marijuana it does not appear likely that a majority of voters would favor repealing Amendment 64 at this time. That being said, popular support for legal marijuana is moot if the federal government begins to enforce national prohibitions on marijuana in the state. While the Obama Administration has taken a hands-off approach to the situation in Colorado it remains to be seen if future executives will follow suit or if they will take legal action to force Colorado into compliance with federal law by challenging Amendment 64 in the federal courts. In the meantime, it is likely that the Colorado state government will continue to adapt existing regulations and create new ones in response to unforeseen developments, and the people of Colorado will continue to adjust to our new reality where discussions about the pros and cons of flowers versus edibles versus concentrates are overheard while waiting at the checkout line at the supermarket.

Courtenay W. Daum received her Ph.D. from Georgetown University and is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University. Her research interests include organized interest mobilization and litigation in the courts, feminist legal theory, and gender and politics. Recent publications include: State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-first Century and “At the Intersection of Social Media and Rape Culture: How Facebook, Texting and Other Personal Communications Challenge the “Real” Rape Myth in the Criminal Justice System” (forthcoming in the Journal of Law, Technology & Policy). At CSU, Professor Daum teaches a variety of classes including American Constitutional Law and U.S. Civil Rights and Liberties.

Re-introducing The New West, the Official Blog of the WPSA

Welcome to our corner of the web! We have some changes to announce. Starting this week, you can expect to see new content here at The New West on a regular basis. We’ll have posts with links to articles and blog posts of interest to WPSA members and some original content from WPSA Information Technology Task Forcers Meredith Conroy of California State University-San Bernardino and Julia Azari of Marquette University. Best of all, we’ll be featuring guest posts each week from political scientists working on topics of interest to WPSA members. Our blog will feature both scholarly commentary on current events as well as pieces about new and recently published scholarship. If you are interested in writing a guest post, please contact Julia at julia [dot] azari [at] marquette [dot] edu. And if you have a recently published academic article that you would like us to feature, please contact Meredith at mconroy [at] csusb [dot] edu.

Things I Learned in the Hot Tub at my Conference

Academic conferences are number 74 on the “100 Reasons not to go to Graduate School” blog.  Yes, conferences can be stogy, boring affairs where good papers on good panels are rare, and productive feedback from discussants is even rarer.  But academic conferences are also the best opportunity to make connections with like-minded scholars.

As a young scholar, I viewed each academic conference as a race to attend as many panels as possible on subjects of interest.  Now I see academic conferences as water stops in a longer marathon, a moment to reconnect with like-minded scholars and regain lost enthusiasm.  My best conferences are those that leave me excited to get back to campus to start new projects, finish projects I’ve been procrastinating on, create a new course, etc.

So many of us get caught up in preparing our offering to the conference that we miss valuable opportunities to cultivate existing or establish new relationships with other scholars.  Here are some (perhaps too obvious) tips for taking advantage of the potential oasis of academic conferences:

  • Choose panels prior to the conference to make sure you have ample time for networking with like-minded scholars.
  • Choose panels based on potential or established relationships with other scholars rather than just the panel theme.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave a panel 20 minutes in if you think your time could be better spent in conversation in the lobby.
  • Attend as many formal and informal social events as possible with like-minded scholars.
  • Schedule breakfast, lunch, and dinners prior to the conference to reconnect with like-minded scholars.
  • Every meal should be shared with someone.
  • Schedule time to sit in the lobby to meet new like-minded scholars.
  • Talk to everyone.  In the lobby.  In the elevator.   In the hot tub.
  • Spend at least one evening in the hotel hot tub where the best conversations tend to happen.

Tell us about your conference experience/advice!

Caroline Heldman
Occidental College

Conference Advice from a (Semi) “Western Veteran”

I’ve been to a lot of Westerns.  Which means I have wandered the downtown streets of Denver, Vancouver, Portland, etc., coffee-shop styrofoam cup (actually, more like 100 percent recycled paper cup) in hand, trying to look busy (except in San Antonio where it is strangely impossible to find coffee near the Alamo.

Years of riding up and down hotel escalators has taught me a few things.  First and foremost, this is a great job!  While each of us can get bogged down in the minutiae of our institutional and departmental cultures, we’re the lucky ones that get to talk about fun stuff with students, unpack interesting questions, and trade ideas (or share drinks and trade ideas) with good friends in great cities year after year.

The Western is a great conference.  What keeps me coming back is the welcome community of scholarly inquiry the association members and leadership have created.  It is the one conference that recognizes there are many different ways to be a political scientist.  It’s a place where you’re much more likely to get useful, instructive feedback on your work, instead of the ego-driven, caustic, one-upmanship type of feedback you might get elsewhere (can you tell I just got an article rejected).

If this is your first conference, I have some advice for you.  Make it a point to break out of your comfort zone.  And if you’ve been going for a while, make it a point to welcome new people into your comfort zone.  Too often at conferences, I’ve seen people stick with their “tribe” and not really make an effort to “build both vertical and horizontal networks” (sorry… political science geek out)!  This can be an extended “friendship” tribe of grad school friends or it can be the “subfield” tribe of people you keep running into on panels.

Building “bonding social capital” is important to do at these conferences.  But equally important is to make space for those serendipitous moments of insight you might gain from attending a panel in an area you know nothing about.  And while panels can become pedantic and derivative, our colleagues almost always have the ability to reframe the way you see a problem you are working with or even point you to new areas of study.

This might sound like dumb advice since we’re so often taught to narrow our disciplinary focus. When you’re a younger academic, the idea of having to conform to standard norms of what it means to do this work is palpable.  But the really good work comes from those scholars that stray from the norm… the scholar who incorporates the good work in other disciplines and sub-fields to change the conventional wisdom.

So talk to someone you’ve never met.  I know it can be scary… it is for me.  As social scientists, it should be obvious to us that we’re all social creatures.  But sometimes, we forget that lesson.  Rather than see the conference as an “opportunity” or as a “chance to get free drinks at the reception,” we should see them as a chance to build a broad, diverse, and pluralistic scholarly community.  Too often, we get caught up in the “seriousness” of our work, when at its basic level, we do the work primarily because it is interesting to us.

So let’s have fun in LA!

Tell us about your conference experiences/advice.

Jose Marichal

California Lutheran University

New Blog Series: Navigating the Academic Conference

The 2013 Western Political Science Association Conference is only 15 days away. In the days leading up to the Conference, we’ll be unveiling a blog series that explores the academic conference in political science. These blog posts will explore a variety of different topics based on our practice of attending conferences in academia.

Within this series, we would also like to hear from you! Email us your own perspective of conferences at TheWesternTwitter@gmail.com. We would like to know what’s your favorite part of attending conferences, why you attend conferences, or what you’re looking forward to in Hollywood this year.

The 2013 Western Political Science Association will be held in Hollywood, CA from March 28-March 30, 2013. For more information, visit http://wpsa.research.pdx.edu/meet/.