Election 2020 Politics

Which constituents should Republican lawmakers listen to?

This idea that Biden’s proposal has majority support and therefore deserves passage has been at the center of the president’s sales pitch since he took office. On Jan. 25, Biden said that his insistence on American unity meant that proposals supported by most Americans should be approved by Congress, a useful argument on the coronavirus package though one which he might eventually find cumbersome.

After all, as Biden notes, polling specifically on his $1.9 trillion relief proposal is broadly popular, according to polls from Quinnipiac University. About two-thirds of Americans support the proposal in the abstract, though that figure includes less than half of Republicans. If the goal is to pass legislation that the country wants to see passed, Biden’s proposal fits his own guideline.

Unsurprisingly, Republicans have not publicly embraced that position. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) was asked about the legislation on Sunday and he suggested that those Americans might not actually understand the bill.

“You don’t have to be a good pollster in Washington to ask the question, hey, would you like the federal government to send you a $3,500 check. Of course the answer is going to be yes,” he said. “If you said, do you want us to borrow that money from your children, because that’s what this is, I think their answer might be a lot different.”

Maybe. The line that government spending is a loan from future generations — however newly reembraced by Scalise’s party — is a long-standing one, and that is probably already baked into those Quinnipiac results. Among Republicans, only 37 percent support Biden’s proposal, so it’s quite likely that some of Scalise’s sentiment is already represented. Beyond that, the argument is perhaps dubious: Will Americans who learn of the existence of the federal debt turn against those checks? Seems fairly unlikely.

But Biden’s presentation is interesting beyond his appeal to polling. He asks that Republican legislators “listen to their constituents,” a framing we hear surprisingly infrequently in American politics. We elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf, not to simply enact our popular will on each and every issue. There’s a potency to that idea, though, that legislators should do what we want, a concept of bottom-up power that can be applied to everything from relief checks to inciting an insurrection.

That framing from Biden raises an obvious question, though: Who do Republicans see as the constituency to which they are beholden?

Theoretically, it’s everyone in their districts. If we overlay the Quinnipiac poll results on the party registration in each House and Senate seat controlled by a Republican (using numbers, including estimates, from the political data firm L2), we find no district in which more constituents oppose than support the Biden bill. In fact, the closest margin across the 262 districts is a 17-point spread in Wyoming, where about 70 percent of voters are registered as Republicans. (Of course, party registration doesn’t cover every resident, but we’ll just set that aside.)

If the constituents being considered is limited solely to the Republicans in each district, then the policy has more opposition than support across the board — since Republicans oppose it in Quinnipiac’s poll. Normally, we wouldn’t assume that this was how Republican legislators viewed their roles, but the presidency of Donald Trump, which was explicit in appealing almost solely to Republican Americans and states, may have broken past expectations. There may not be Republican members of Congress who care only about the Republicans in their districts, but there are certainly and demonstrably Republicans who are obvious in their efforts to champion the culture-war stuff that motivates so much of the party base.

If you want to raise your profile and raise money, engaging in whatever Fox News is mad about is a good way to do that. If you want to get the most partisan and most vocal Republicans in your district angry, you do things like voting your conscience on the impeachment of a president. That partisanship and volume seem so clearly to overlap — and that more extreme partisans are more likely to vote in primaries — is pertinent here. If the people who are most likely to demand adherence to a hard-right position are also those most likely to speak out about it or to vote for a primary opponent, that’s a strong motivation.

Biden’s appeal depends to some extent on recognition that Republicans are almost universally less than half of a district. Even in the most densely Republican districts, less than half of voters are generally registered with the party. L2′s data suggest that 214 of the 262 districts and states represented by Republicans have Republican registrations below 50 percent of voters. The median Republican density is 40 percent.

Republicans can win largely because of independent voters (as is also the case for Democratic politicians). Political independents generally align with one party or the other, often due to dislike of the other major party. In Republican districts, the median combined density of Republicans and independents is 70 percent.

The divide among independents in terms of which party they prefer isn’t well correlated to the overall party breakdown in the state. Post polling conducted in swing states with ABC News and the Schar School last year found a range of how independents identified their party lean. Nationally, Gallup has a much smaller percentage of pure independents, those who don’t lean toward one party or the other.

Republican legislators are very attuned to Republican voters and probably not terribly concerned about the policy priorities of the Democrats in their districts. But they should keep an ear out for the views of those independents (who, in Quinnipiac’s national poll, back Biden’s proposal by a more than 2-to-1 margin).

Among all of the Republicans in the House and the Senate at this point, only nine of them won election with a level of support less than 5 percentage points higher than the percentage of Republicans in their districts. Everything above the diagonal line below is a Republican in Congress who received more support in his or her election than the density of Republicans in their district. On average, the level of support received was 21 points higher than that density: a 62-point percentage of support and a 41 percent Republican density.

Those three dots furthest to the right? Wyoming’s senators and representative.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Republican legislators need non-Republican votes. Some of these races were largely uncontested. In some, relatively few Democrats likely bothered to come vote. But it is generally the case that elected officials these days can’t depend solely upon members of their own party to win election.

That’s not Biden’s point: His is that they should respect the will of the Americans they represent, a will encapsulated in a few national polls. The point here is that Republicans alone aren’t why most of those legislators won election. But the most important point is the one which is most stubborn: It is often only Republicans who select the party’s nominee to run for a House or Senate seat. So it is often those voters to whom elected officials are consistently most attentive.

Lenny Bronner, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this report.

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