The GOP “diversity problem” explained

Nikki Haley 2010

Nikki Haley 2010

By Meredith Conroy and Caroline Heldman

When it was announced that Nikki Haley, Republican governor of South Carolina, would be giving the official response to Obama’s final State of the Union address, Democratic National Committee chair and Representative of Florida’s 23rd District, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, commented that the choice by the GOP was because they have a “diversity problem.”

The GOP does elect fewer people of color than the Democratic Party, but does this mean they have a diversity problem?

Racial minorities are underrepresented in Congress – they make up 17% of the legislature, compared to 38% of the population. An analysis of the racial diversity in Congress reveals that out of 102 members who are racial/ethnic minorities, only 18% belong to the Republican Party. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, of the 38 current members of Congress who are Latino, 31% are Republican. Of the 48 Black members, only 6% are Republican. According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, 3% of congressional members are Asian American (which encompasses Asians, Pacific Islanders, and South Asians). Only one Asian-American member is Republican, and both of the two Native American representatives in Congress are Republican.

These numbers do point to a diversity gap between elected Democrats and Republicans that reflects a gap in partisan identification in the electorate. About 23% of Latinos, 24% of Blacks, and 35% of Indian-Americans in the U.S. vote Republican. In short, racial/ethnic minorities prefer the Democratic Party by a wide margin.

However, the Republican’s “diversity problem” is not confined to race. Women are significantly less likely to identify with the Republican Party than men.

Women are underrepresented in Congress overall – 19% compared to 51% of the population, but they are especially underrepresented in the GOP. Only 27% of the women who are sitting members of Congress are Republicans. As with race, this partisan gender gap reflects a gender gap in party identification in the electorate.

According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study of partisanship, 52% of women identify as Democrats, while 36% as Republicans. One key reason many women turn to the Democratic Party is the GOP’s policy positions. In recent years, Republicans have passed more than 200 bills limiting abortion rights. Many in the GOP have supported a deceptive campaign against Planned Parenthood that has been linked to a shooting at a Colorado women’s health clinic, where three people were killed. Republicans also voted unanimously against the Paycheck Fairness Act, intended to address the persistent gender gap in wages. (White women make 78 cents for every dollar a white man makes, while black women make 64 cents, and Latinas make 54 cents.) In their article, Deason, Greenlee, and Langer (2015) argue that the partisan disparity in elected female officials may be due in part to the respective policy positions of the parties.

Limited gender diversity in the party recruitment pool also accounts for partisan gender gaps in political leadership. Crowder-Meyer and Lauderdale (2014) find that the Democrat’s advantage in electing female candidates can be explained by the parties’ respective eligibility pools. In 2012, women comprised 56% of the Democratic pool compared to only 26% of the Republican pool. Furthermore, women in the Democratic pool tend to be better educated and hold higher occupational prestige than women in the Republican pool, characteristics that affect electoral viability.

The GOP’s decision to elevate Governor Haley by asking her to give the official response to President Obama’s State of the Union address was likely an attempt to inoculate the party from its “diversity issues.” Haley was employed as a weapon against Donald J. Trump, but also tested as a potential weapon against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

With respect to Trump, his candidacy has turned back much of the progress made by Republicans, since the 2012 election, including a primary field that is the most diverse ever with one female, one Indian-American, one African-American, and two Latino candidates vying for the nomination. In 2012, the Republican Party conducted a postmortem on the presidential election that generated dozens of recommendations to improve its electoral viability. The report stated,“Many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country,” and, “It is imperative that the RNC changes how it engages with Hispanic communities to welcome in new members of our Party.” Yet any progress, or proposed efforts, in terms of diversity, have been overshadowed by Trump’s candidacy. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll finds that over the course of the primary season, the GOP has lost major ground amongst African Americans and Latinos, who have a much more unfavorable view of the Republican Party today, than they did before the election season.

Polling analysis shows that Trump is the least electable of the major Republican candidates in a match-up with Clinton. Of the 30 national polls that have been taken since August of 2015, Clinton beats Trump in 25 and ties him in two. Clinton bests Trump in all of the national trial heat polls, and her solid lead has not wavered. The running average of national polls shows Trump losing to Clinton by 5.5 percentage points, while Marco Rubio beats her by 1.9% and Ted Cruz trails her by less than 1%.

The selection of Haley for the State of the Union response is a signal that the Republican Party establishment wants to neutralize Trump by elevating diverse party representatives. Moreover, existing scholarship finds that role models are a key factor in getting more women into positions of political leadership. Campbell and Wolbrecht (2006) find that the presence of visible female role models does in fact increase the propensity for girls to express an intention to be politically active, signaling the importance of making visible political women, especially Republican women, of which there are fewer. Haley’s rebuttal was a great opportunity for girls and women across the U.S. to hear from a woman of color backed by a major political party, a rare opportunity in U.S. politics.

*These calculations include non-voting delegates from the US Territories.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. 

Caroline Heldman is an associate professor of political science at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, CA.



Introducing the New Editors of The Western


In this edition, we would like to introduce the new editors of the Western Newsletter, Danielle Lemi and Janni Aragon. We are proud to continue the tradition of editors Daniellecoming from UC Riverside’s Political Science Department. It is a happy coincidence. Many thanks to the founding editors, Valerie O’Regan and Stephen Stambough for their hard work!

Danielle Lemi is a Ph.D. Candidate at  UC Riverside.  Her dissertation examines how multiracial categorization and multiracial identity interacts with media coverage of candidates in traditional and alternative media, how voters evaluate candidates, and how candidates themselves, once they are elected, view their racial identities and their legislative priorities. In short, the dissertation finds that race still plays a significant role in the packaging of, the perceptions of, and the actions of candidates considered non-white.  She is a Bay Area native, a Paleo enthusiast. She was also a 2012 recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

JanniJanni Aragon is the founding Director Technology Integrated Learning at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, and is an Assistant Professor, Adjunct in Political Science. In her administrative role, she helps support educational technology and pedagogy across campus. Janni  is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Learning and Teaching, and chairs an Information Technology committee, Teaching, Learning Technology. Janni is a former Chair of the Academic Women’s Caucus (AWC). Janni was a long time serving Undergraduate Advisor in Political Science. You can find Janni on Twitter @janniaragon or on her blog She is currently working on a book about teaching and mentoring.

To read this edition of The Western, download the full PDF here.

Low Voter Turnout: Not an Individual Moral Failure

By Jason A. McDaniel

Autumn is in the air and we are in an odd-numbered year, which makes it likely that a local election is taking place somewhere near you. Unfortunately, it is also likely that fewer than half of registered voters of any given city will be participating in that local election.

Perhaps even more importantly, the racial composition of the electorate will be disproportionately white, even in racially diverse cities. According to my analysis of data for the upcoming mayoral election in San Francisco, 65% of voters in the electorate will be white, in a city where just 42% of the population is white. In a city where 20% of the population is either Black or Latino, my estimates indicate they will make up less than 10% of the voting electorate.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 1.10.25 PM

In addition to be disproportionately white, urban and local electorates are likely to be heavily skewed towards older voters. According to my research, there is about a 30% probability that an individual registered voter under the age of 40 will vote in an election in San Francisco, regardless of individual racial identity. By way of comparison, approximately 65% of registered voters in San Francisco under age 40 voted in the 2012 presidential election.

Screen Shot 2015-11-01 at 1.10.36 PM

The relatively low levels of participation in local elections has received some attention, and is certainly cause for concern. Too often, however, the low level of electoral participation in U.S. cities is framed as a moral failure of citizens who do not care enough to bother to embrace their civic duty. Such moralistic framing tends to obscure the importance of electoral institutions and demographic factors.

What explains the patterns of turnout that we see in places like San Francisco and other cities? Research into the subject points to a combination of factors, some of which are easier to ameliorate than others. In general, low levels of electoral participation urban elections can be explained by the specific set of electoral rules and institutions that are prevalent in big cities, a confluence of demographic changes, such as increased racial diversity and immigration, and the decline of partisan electoral competition in urban elections.

The most important factor, to my mind, is the electoral rules and institutions that have separated local elections from state and national elections. We know that people are motivated to participate in elections when they feel there is an important interest at stake. Holding local elections in different years from other state and federal elections makes it less likely that voters will perceive that there are important interests at stake. Changing the election calendar to coincide with other important elections would dramatically increase participation.

We know that some individual characteristics correlate with higher probability of electoral participation. People who have higher levels of education, people who are older, and people who have been citizens longer are more likely to perceive a compelling interest to vote. They are more likely to develop the habit of voting.

We also know that citizens who identify with racial-ethnic minority groups are more likely to participate in local elections when they have the opportunity to elect a candidate who is representative of their racial-ethnic group.

We know that people are more likely to participate when they are mobilized to do so. That is, when they are asked to participate by a family member, friend, neighbor, or (especially) by a candidate or campaign organization. I suspect that concentrated and sustained efforts to mobilize the Asian-American electorate in San Francisco explains why turnout has increased steadily since 2003 among Asian-American voters.

Voter mobilization requires money, skill, and organization. Unfortunately, the combination of strict campaign finance rules and non-partisan elections makes it very difficult to connect money, skill, and organization to produce strong voter mobilization effects. Research consistently shows that electoral participation increases as campaign spending increases. Also, research shows that the chances of an incumbent winning re-election decline as spending increases. This research implies that we should consider making it easier to raise and spend money in local elections. Public financing of elections, including public matching schemes adopted by cities such as New York and San Francisco, can be part of the solution. But, as long as campaign finance reformers primary focus is on limiting contributions, public financing should not be expected to substantially increase voter turnout in local elections.

Automatic voter registration, recently adopted in California and other states, will improve things in some respects, but, unfortunately, it will not be a panacea. According to research by Michael McDonald, we should not expect substantial increases in voter turnout rates because the increase in registered voters will be concentrated in those portions of the electorate that are least likely to participate.

The low levels of local electoral participation in American cities does not represent a moral failure of voters. Treating declining participation as a moral failing is likely to perpetuate racial and age disparities in the electorate. Moreover, doing so shifts the focus away from the things that government institutions and political campaigns can do to improve electoral participation.

Jason A. McDaniel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at San Francisco State University.

Fatherhood, Motherhood, and Political Viability

By Meredith Conroy

Paul Ryan and his family, in an instagram post.

The latest twist in the tale of the House Speaker vacancy has seen Paul Ryan, the resentful favorite, use his general appeal to ask for four concessions, one of which is that he would take on fewer fundraising duties than past Speakers, in order to maintain the time he now spends with his young children.

When I heard this I was struck by how unapologetic he was in his demands, and for this one demand in particular. Furthermore, I was struck by the praise he was receiving for this particular demand—“how refreshing for a man to put his family before work” etc. Via her Facebook profile, which boasts 1.7 million followers, Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, gave Ryan the “Lean In Award of the day” writing, “We need work to work for parents – and having leaders who weigh responsibilities as fathers as much as their responsibilities to their jobs shows all of us what is possible.” Although, not everyone agreed that he should be recognized; plenty of Sandberg’s followers were quick to point out Ryan’s hypocrisy—as a member of congress, Ryan has not supported paid family leave, or other measures that would give similar courtesy to working parents. [Sidenote: there was of course the sarcastic twitter response #PaulRyanConditions, which mocked the general premise of demands, but not the demands in particular.]

While the rationale for his demands is varied—certainly he wants to ensure that taking on the Speaker role will not preclude a future presidential run—the familial rationale is one that a similarly situated woman would never make, and is a not-so-friendly reminder that for a woman in politics, her family can be a liability, while for men, it is an asset.

In particular, recall this interview with Nancy Pelosi, featured in the outstanding documentary, Miss Representation, in which she reminisces about her first run for public office:


While Pelosi’s first run for public office was in the mid-90s, women who are mothers who run for office, today, are still more likely than their male counterparts to have their families, and role as mothers and wives, featured in media coverage (Banwart, Bystrom, and Robetson 2003; Conroy et al. 2015; Heldman, Carroll and Olsen 2005; Kahn 1994, 1996).

Even if media coverage that focuses on a woman’s family and her role as a mother is not judgmental, it is problematic. When a woman’s coverage is focused on her familial role as a mother, it takes away from coverage that might otherwise be focused on her issue positions, which would more clearly establish her as a viable, experienced, political candidate, instead of more exclusively a mother. This is not to say that motherhood doesn’t contribute to a woman’s leadership capacity—I would argue it enhances it—yet until the lingering stigma that a working mom is a neglectful mom is eradicated, describing women with political ambitions primarily in terms of their motherhood does not give her campaign an edge.

To be frank, media coverage that is focused on family and parental obligations can be more damaging for women than for men. This is because the persistent expectation in American society is largely that women are more responsible for raising children than men. This expectation is a major influence on whether a woman will even consider running for office. For example, Jennifer L. Lawless and Richard L. Fox (2010) uncover a shockingly wide gender gap in the role of parenthood on the decision to run for political office—sixty-five percent of women believe that having children makes it more difficult to run for public office, whereas only 3 percent of men agreed.

Unfortunately, women who are mothers may be right to exercise caution when deciding to run for office. Using an experiment, Brittany L. Stalsburg (2010) manipulated otherwise identical candidates’ parental statuses and found respondents to indicate that men with young children are more politically viable than women with young children. As Stalsburg notes,

This line of research suggests that gender role expectations and family obligations are more salient for political women than for political men. Women are constrained by family responsibilities and must negotiate their private lives in ways that men do not (2010, 378).

As such, men are more likely to feature their families when campaigning than female candidates (Bystrom et al. 2004), to overcome the presumption that they are primarily wives and mothers, less capable of politicking.

And it is in this environment that we find Paul Ryan able to unapologetically demand that if he accepts the House Speaker position he be able to travel less, to be a present father. Hopefully, our future is one where women can make the same demands, without being perceived as politically weak, or less viable.

Works Cited

Banwart, Mary Christine, Dianne G. Bystrom, and Terry Robertson. “From the Primary to the General Election: A Comparative Analysis of Candidate Media Coverage in Mixed-Gender 2000 Races for Governor and U.S. Senate.” American Behavioral Scientist 46, no. 5 (2003): 658–

Bystrom, Dianne G., Mary C. Banwart, Lynda Lee Kaid, and Terry A. Robertson. Gender and Candidate Communication: VideoStyle. WebStyle. NewsStyle. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Conroy, Meredith, Sarah Oliver, Ian Breckenridge-Jackson, and Caroline Heldman. “From Ferraro to Palin: Sexism in Media Coverage of Vice Presidential Candidates,” Politics, Groups, and Identities, 2015. DOI: 10.1080/21565503.2015.1050412.

Heldman, Caroline, Susan J. Carroll, and Stephanie Olson. “‘She Brought Only a Skirt’: Print Media Coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s Bid for the Republican Presidential Nomination.” Political Communication 22, no. 3 (2005): 315–35.

Kahn, Kim Fridkin. “Does Gender Make a Difference? An Experimental Examination of Sex Stereotypes and Press Patterns in Statewide Campaigns.” American Journal of Political Science 38, no. 1 (1994): 162−95.

Kahn, Kim Fridkin. The Political Consequences of Being a Woman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

Lawless, Jennifer L., and Richard L. Fox. It Still Takes a Candidate: Why Women Don’t Run for Office. Revised Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Stalsburg, Brittany L. “Voting for Mom: The Political Consequences of Being a Parent for Male and Female Candidates.” Politics and Gender 6 (2010): 373−404.

Meredith Conroy is an assistant professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino. Her book, Masculinity, Media, and the American Presidency, is now available from Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy at a discounted rate, visit, and enter discount code PM15THIRTY.

Religion and presidential elections

Library of Congress

Source: Library of Congress

by William Adler

There’s been a lot of talk lately among a certain segment of Republicans claiming that President Obama is a Muslim; or that maybe he’s too sympathetic to clock-building “terrorist” teenagers; or that, perhaps, Muslims are unfit to be considered for higher office altogether (article VI of the Constitution notwithstanding). Sadly, virtually none of this is surprising (something something history repeating itself).

Interestingly, though, this isn’t the first time in U.S. history that a president’s political opponents have accused him of lying about his true religious faith. When Thomas Jefferson ran for president in 1800, preachers and Federalist hatchet-men called him a “confirmed infidel,” who professed “disbelief in the Holy Scriptures” and was in fact a “howling atheist.” At best, some argued, Jefferson was a closeted Deist who rejected the active hand of God in the world. William Linn, a Dutch Reformed minister in New York, authored a pamphlet entitled, “Considerations on the Election of a President: Addressed to the Citizens of the United States,” in which he stated:

“No professed deist, be his talents and achievements what they may, ought to be promoted to this place by the suffrages of a Christian nation… Would Jews or Mahometans, consistently with their belief, elect a Christian? Shall Christians be less zealous and active than they?”

Jefferson won the election, of course, but the smear campaign against him left a mark. Federalists spent most of Jefferson’s two terms in office continuing to find new ways to impeach his character: that he was too much of a philosopher, or too professorial in bearing, to make a good president; that his attachments to France and the French way of living made him all too likely to foment an American version of the French Revolution; that he was attempting to become a dictator; that he opposed the Constitution and secretly despised the national government; that he wanted to weaken the U.S. military for the sake of inviting foreign powers in; and that he slept with his female slaves who then gave birth to his unrecognized children (probably true).

For both Jefferson and Obama, these smears are linked to the broader critique their political opponents have had of their policies and governing projects. Jefferson, a committed Enlightenment rationalist, believed strongly in a strict division between religion and state, famously calling for a “wall” between them. Obama entered office in strong opposition to George W. Bush’s policies on the Iraq War and the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. As a result, it’s easy for those so inclined to re-read these political stances as the product of some deeper, hidden motivation that supposedly disqualifies them as leader of the nation. In a nation where religion occupies such a central part of our political discourse, it’s all too easy for political opportunists to use this kind of moral denigration to eat away at someone’s political legitimacy.

Sources/further reading

Joanne B. Freeman, “The Election of 1800: A Study in the Logic of Political Change,” The Yale Law Journal 108:8 (June 1999): 1959-1994.

Frank Lambert, “’God – and a Religious President… [or] Jefferson and No God’: Campaigning for a Voter-Imposed Religious Test in 1800,” Journal of Church and State 39:4 (Autumn 1997): 769-789.

Charles O. Lerche, Jr., “Jefferson and the Election of 1800: A Case Study in the Political Smear,” The William and Mary Quarterly 5:4 (Oct 1948): 467-491.

William D. Adler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Northeastern Illinois University.  His research interests include American political development and the presidency.  He has published articles in the Journal of Policy History, Studies in American Political Development, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Political Science Quarterly, and Polity.

Rethinking state capacity in the face of crisis

By Lama Mourad

By Mstyslav Chernov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo via Wikimedia Commons; Women and children among Syrian refugees striking at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station. Refugee crisis. Budapest, Hungary, Central Europe, 4 September 2015.

The current migrant crisis,[1] primarily fuelled by the ongoing civil war in Syria and parts of Iraq, has been the subject of much writing over the last few weeks. The vast majority of the focus has been on how this crisis is affected by, and affects, politics in Europe (and to a lesser extent Canada and the USA). While for Europe, it appears that this “crisis” is a recent one – with this summer seeing a remarkable increase in numbers of asylum claimants and refugees attempting to come into Europe – for neighbouring countries, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, it has been a reality for years now.

Contrast, for example, the most generous commitment of any European country by far, Germany’s decision to take in 800 000 refugees by year’s end, with the more than 1.1 million refugees[2] already in Lebanon, a country with a population twenty times smaller and with a fifth of Germany’s per capita GDP. Jordan and Turkey host, by the most conservative estimates, over 600 000 and 1.9 million refugees respectively.

Therefore, as we look for lasting solutions and responses to the migrant crisis, we should be aware not to reproduce the general emphasis on South-North (as opposed to South-South) migration by focusing on refugees and asylum seekers who aim to settle in Europe. Rather, we should remember that the vast majority of migrants remain in the Middle East, either displaced within their country or in neighbouring countries — a trend that holds true in other regions and major cases of displacement. Therefore, we would be well served — both as a discipline and as citizens — to look at learning from these cases and to ensure that they do not slip out of the limelight when they do not directly impact on politics of Western states.

While the issues of concern for political scientists in this crisis are many, including the importance of what we teach in our syllabi, there has been little discussion of how this crisis should force us to rethink some of our most basic assumptions regarding state capacity and strength — critical concepts in the field.

State strength is generally understood as a function of two main factors: capacity and sovereignty. Based on the Weberian definition, strong states are those who hold the monopoly of power over their territory, and provide a core set of political goods to their citizens, not least of which is security. In contrast, weak states are understood to either lack the capacity to provide a set of core goods, and/or are unable to do so independently. This broad definition has a number of scholarly and policy implications, namely an emphasis on ‘state-building’ through a focus on the central institutions of the state, such as strengthening the capacity of security institutions, legislatures, and judiciaries.

Based on these notions, international rankings of state strength, such as the Fragile State Index (FSI) (formerly the Failed States Index) serve to tell scholars and policy makers which states are most likely to buckle under pressure or to experience greater instability. Under this rubric Lebanon – which now hosts the largest refugee population per capita in the world – has consistently ranked among countries with a high or very high warning on the FSI. This, along with its history of civil war, has led many to warn of its (imminent) collapse or, at the very least, of the reemergence of civil conflict.

In light of this, it’s rather remarkable how resilient the Lebanese state appears in the face of the most recent crisis. While “strong”, prosperous states in Europe and North America frequently speak of a limit to their absorptive capacity, despite the relatively low numbers of refugees most of these countries anticipate hosting, otherwise “weak” states such as Lebanon bear an exponentially larger burden and continue to function, admittedly not without problems.

It is with this in mind that I suggest that we look beyond the emphasis on state-level (macro) indicators when trying to understand a country’s capacity to cope with crisis. In doing so, it may be fruitful to look from the bottom-up to see how the communities most affected by the crisis are adapting and coping with the major changes of the last few years. For instance, as has been noted, one village in Lebanon is currently hosting more Syrian refugees than the entire United States. In the absence of a central policy to deal with the refugee crisis – with the exception of the major decision to not build refugee camps – local communities and municipalities, with the participation of local and international NGOs and actors, are creating and implementing initiatives and policies that most directly affect the lives of both citizens and refugees.

Considering these cases should cause us to rethink some of the taken-for-granted assumptions about what makes states otherwise “weak” or “strong,” and help us move away from this entrenched dichotomy. In this regard, local-level resilience and adaptability may have important effects on macro-level patterns and state strength.

Lama Mourad is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto, where she researches migration and local governance in the Middle East. From 2012-2015, Lama was a CGS-Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) doctoral fellow, and is currently a fellow at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict, and Justice. She will be returning to the Middle East as an affiliate of the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut in the fall of 2015.

[1] Debate surrounding the terminology used to define the crisis has abounded over the last few weeks. I choose to retain the broader category of migrant to characterize the crisis, as many of those fleeing do not fit the overly-restrictive Convention definition of refugees, and denying this reality would serve to reinforce an extant hierarchy in the international migration regime. For more on this, please see a recent piece by Kelsey Norman and I in Muftah.

[2] By official estimates. Due to challenges in registering refugees, the unofficial numbers are higher, with some estimates as high as 2 million.

John Boehner resigns


Photo Source: Wikipedia

by Chera LaForge

It’s been a big week for the United States Congress. On Thursday, they hosted Pope Francis in a joint session, an event possible only because of the long-time efforts of Speaker of the House, John Boehner. On Friday, Boehner announced his resignation from his leadership position and congressional seat in a closed door meeting of the Republican caucus. Boehner’s resignation ends an interesting and tumultuous period for the Republican leadership. In 2014, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (VA) lost his Virginia primary race to an unknown economics professor and Tea Party candidate, Dave Brat, the first sitting majority leader to lose his position. And while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would eventually win handily in both races, he faced an expensive primary battle from the right and a highly qualified Democratic challenger in the general election. The electoral challenges leadership has faced in the past two years mirror the increasing difficulty of managing the increasingly conservative Republican rank and file.

The resignation of Boehner isn’t actually as abrupt as we might expect. Vote View predicted that Boehner may be “one casualty of this fight over Planned Parenthood” on September 19 and rumors were floating that Boehner supporters in Congress were trying to prevent his ouster until after the Pope’s visit. Yet, Boehner’s challenges reach back much farther than the most recent threat of a government shutdown. In July, House Freedom Caucus member, Mark Meadows (R-NC), filed a motion to vacate the chair, arguing that Boehner had tried to consolidate power, punish members that voted against his wishes, limited the power of the legislative branch, and bypassed the wishes of most of the Republican caucus. While the motion didn’t move beyond being referred to the House Rules Committee, it did cap off two cycles where an increasing number of Republicans voted against his campaign for the speakership. At the start of the 114th Congress, 25 Republicans voted against him, casting ballots for a wide array of other members including Louis Gohmert (TX), Jeff Duncan (SC), Daniel Webster (FL), and Kevin McCarthy (CA). At the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, nine Republicans had voted against Boehner.

The speaker’s role is not an easy one, especially in an era of increasing polarization both within the chamber and across the country. With the growth in the number of conservative, Tea Party Republicans in Congress, Boehner’s position became increasingly imperiled. These members pushed for hardline responses on issues like defunding Planned Parenthood, primarily because their personal ideology and district make-up allowed for it. However, as Speaker of the House, Boehner had to balance multiple strategic considerations. The move to defund Planned Parenthood has been described as “quixotic” by The Washington Times, primarily because it faced no chance of passing the Senate (and, in fact, the Senate vote failed 47-52 yesterday) and President Obama had threatened to veto the legislation even if it had. Forcing a government shutdown because of the issue could be disastrous for the Republican Party moving into an election season, a point Boehner was well aware of. During the last government shutdown in 2013, Gallup found favorability for the Republican Party fell to a record low of 28 percent, a much lower rating than the Congressional Democrats held (43 percent). While the members who pushed for Boehner to hold a vote on the issue may have been safe, vulnerable Republicans in more moderate districts might not have been. The speaker’s role is to ensure those members and the party hold the majority.

The question still remains why Boehner chose to resign from not only the speakership, but also the Ohio District he has held since 1991. Career decisions often involve multiple calculations and it’s difficult to know exactly what Boehner was thinking. Perhaps he was inspired or chastened by the Pope’s message to seek compromise and collaboration. More likely, however, Boehner’s retirement and resignation was a strategic one. It seems likely that Boehner would have faced an increasingly hostile Republican caucus, one that seemed dead set on removing him from his position. Whether the removal was a voluntary one or a high profile conservative coup to vacate the chair, Boehner would have been in a weakened position heading into the 2016 elections. While the Ohio 8th District is solidly Republican, it wouldn’t have prevented a strong primary challenge from the right. Boehner’s resignation removes him from the ensuing battle over the shutdown and helps to maintain some of his legislative legacy. Who will replace him and what effect his resignation will have on the potential shutdown is still up in the air, however.

Chera LaForge is an assistant professor of political science. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her main research interests lie in Congress and legislative behavior. Specifically, she looks at how progressive ambition impacts the quality of representation and campaign behavior.