Trumping Incentives: Why Trump hasn’t been stopped but still might be

Much has been written about why Donald Trump is on track to become the Republican presidential nominee. Theories range from Trump as a response to Obama’s upending of racial hierarchy to Trump as an authoritarian figure to economic anxiety presenting itself as support for Trump. Frankly, our technical approach to punditry has very little to offer as to why Trump has appeal and so we won’t bother analyzing Trump through that lens. However, an equally interesting question is why he hasn’t been stopped. For the first several months of the Trump candidacy, pundits, politicos, and even our team were all convinced that Trump’s early support was an anomaly. It was quickly chalked up to another Santorum/Gingrich-type early surge. The thinking went that because Trump was so extreme and so despised by GOP elites, his support would drop. Man, were we wrong.

Although Trump still struggles to win majorities in most states, he is consistently winning pluralities and is well on his way to the nomination. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear that he will win the required majority to win on the first ballot, but he may have a sizable enough plurality to win over unbounded delegates and still pull it off. So why is it that nothing has been able to significantly stop Trump?

One of the reasons may be that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, people don’t think that differently about putting a check in a box and answering a question on the phone. Kristen Soltis Andersen at National Review summarizes the conventional wisdom as such: “Some people may say they plan to vote for Trump, but, in reality, they haven’t had to deeply consider the question and so they just say the last name they heard on the news.” (It is important to note that Andersen does not actually take this view as the truth, she merely says that it is the view held by many.) However, it is pretty clear that this is not the case. In fact, as actual elections have started and the primary calendar continues on, Trump’s support nationally continues to climb.

So why is the conventional wisdom flawed on this point? Well, the core assumption behind this theory is that when someone enters a polling place (or caucus site) and puts that check mark next to a name, they think more about the ramifications of their vote than they do when called up by a pollster. However, thinking about the voters’ incentives in the two situations reveals that there is no reason for a different thought process. When asked by a pollster1 to state their preference, the external cost of doing so is zero: polls don’t actually decide outcomes. On the other hand, the conventional wisdom is predicated on a nonzero external cost to casting a ballot2. While the cost may be nonzero, it is essentially zero, as the probability of a single voter’s vote deciding an election is so small, that any costs associated with casting a ballot can be considered zero3. This means that there is very little reason to think that people have significantly different thought processes when casting a ballot and when answering a poll.

With the idea that people would change their mind as election day approaches, the other assumption that many made was that the party would decide. This line of thinking posits that in general, candidates who are broadly acceptable to party leaders tend to win elections because they have easier access to the party’s resources. Well, kind of. There is a lot more complexity then that to the argument, which was first presented in the 2008 book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. In this election cycle, the rise of Trump has prompted possible reevaluation of this work. Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University, posits that in fact, The Party Decides is why the GOP has not stopped Trump. Drezner argues that because the broad punditsphere was so convinced that the party would stop Trump, the party forgot that it actually had to stop Trump.

This idea may be a bit far fetched and is not necessarily true, but it starts to hit at something: Trump is succeeding because the party is failing. Specifically, the party is failing at coordinating. In economics, a coordination failure occurs when a group of firms in an industry is capable of achieving multiple equilibria. However, in order to reach the highest equilibrium, they must coordinate, which they fail to do, forcing them down to a lower equilibrium. The same concept can be applied to this election: Trump may represent an equilibrium in the GOP, but he is certainly not the highest equilibrium. However, because the party failed to coordinate, it failed to achieve a higher equilibrium, such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.

So why did this coordination failure occur? Well, staying in the realm of economics, this coordination failure is likely because the costs of coordination were high and the costs of not coordinating seemed low. In order for GOP leaders to coordinate, they would have had to settle early on one particular candidate and pour resources into that campaign in order to beat Trump. This is costly because it would have required them to force other well-qualified candidates out and for much of the campaign, GOP leaders seemed unwilling to settle on a candidate. Even now, as many GOP elected officials are endorsing Ted Cruz, they are doing so rather reluctantly. On the other hand, because of a belief that Trump could never win and a low probability of support from a single person making the ultimate difference, individual GOP leaders were presented with a low cost of not coordinating. This meant that for much of the campaign, the cost of a coordination failure was seen as small compared to the costs of coordinating.

Now however, the cost calculus seems to be changing. Ted Cruz is slowly picking up more and more endorsements, indicating that many party leaders are viewing him as the last best hope to stopping Trump. But even if Cruz picks up steam, it may be too little too late: Cruz is still incredibly unlikely to win the nomination before the convention. But, the hope for many is that Cruz may be able to prevent Trump from wrapping up the nomination before the convention, leading to a contested convention and the possibility of nominating someone else.

Which leaves one last question: if it comes to a contested convention, isn’t the same coordination failure going to repeat itself? That seems unlikely. Once again, we can take a look at the incentives of delegates at the convention4. Delegates to the Republican National Convention are not normal voters; instead, they frequently have deep ties to the GOP. This may mean they are related to big donors, are elected officials or people who have a large stake in the GOP. This is important because they have a different set of incentives: Most importantly, many delegates have a selfish incentive for a strong party. Many within the party view Trump as an existential threat to the party, and therefore the cost of nominating him is astronomical. If the delegates hold that view, which is likely given the composition of delegates, then the cost of a coordination failure is equally astronomically high. Additionally, with less than 2,500 delegates at the convention, the probability of any one of them casting the deciding vote is much higher. Especially if Trump gets close to the required 1,237, the cost of any one vote becomes very high, providing further incentive to coordinate.

Of course, there is a potential cost, both to individual delegates and the party of denying Trump the nomination. Many in the base may see that action as undemocratic, putting the political careers of individual delegates and the future of the party at stake. However, it seems like many believe that denying Trump the nomination may be a necessary evil to securing the future of the party. It may be close, but a close examination of the incentives at play will continue to provide valuable insight.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Doing the Delegate Math in the Wake of Super Tuesday

With Super Tuesday now behind us and hundreds more delegates awarded to their respective candidates, the path to the end of the primary season seems much more clear.  The big delegate winners of the night were Trump and Clinton, who won seven states each.  However, the endgame of the primaries is not to win the most states but to win the most delegates, so let’s take a look at the number of delegates each candidate has won to date.

The Democratic side only has two candidates competing for the nomination, so it should be the easier side to analyze.  However, giving delegate totals for the Democratic side is actually a little tricky due to the large amount of superdelegates whose votes are not tied to any primary or caucus result.  Many, but not all, of these superdelegates have already expressed preference for one candidate or the other, allowing us to include them in each candidate’s delegate total.  However, it is important to recognize that these superdelegates can change their support at any time leading up to the nomination.

Including superdelegates, Hillary Clinton has 1,052 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 4271.  2,383 delegates are required to win the nomination.  This means that Clinton still requires 1,331 delegates to clinch the nomination.  Considering that there are 3,284 Democratic delegates not yet allocated, a little bit of division tells us Clinton needs to win 40.5% of the remaining delegates to secure her position as the Democratic nominee.  On the other hand, Sanders would require 59.6% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination.

However, there is a critique to counting superdelegates in the totals at this state of the nomination process.  Since superdelegates are not bound to candidates, they can change their preferences and affect our previous calculations.  Many Sanders supporters argue that if Sanders starts outperforming Clinton later in the primary process, superdelegates that currently support Clinton will be pressured to support Sanders.  Since Clinton currently has an overwhelming lead in superdelegate support, this would make the nomination easier for Sanders.  We can mathematically adjust for this assumption by ignoring the existence of superdelegates and calculating how many regular delegates each candidate would need to clinch the nomination.  This model works under the assumption that superdelegates will ultimately cave in to popular support.  Ignoring superdelegates, Clinton still has a delegate lead of 594 to 405.  In this hypothetical system, winning 2,026 regular delegates ensures a majority, and Clinton would need to win 46.9% of the remaining delegates while Sanders would require 53.1%.  So yes, Sanders supporters are correct in arguing that a late superdelegate shift would help their candidate, but it is important to note the effects of such a shift are minimal.

The Republican side is a little more complex, as there are more than two candidates to consider.  It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination.  Of the 695 delegates already awarded, Donald Trump has 319, Ted Cruz has 226, Marco Rubio has 110 and John Kasich has 252. Interestingly, even though Trump has been billed by the media as the presumptive Republican nominee, he has only won a plurality of the delegates so far and not the majority he would need to win the nomination without a brokered convention.  Trump needs to win 51.7% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination, while Cruz needs 56.9%, Rubio needs 63.4% and Kasich needs 68.2%.  Of course, due to the possibility of a contested convention for the Republicans, the candidates know that they do not necessarily need to win a majority of the delegates to have a shot at the nomination.  Instead, they simply need to prevent other candidates from winning a majority.

So, if Hillary only has a slim delegate lead over Sanders and Trump hasn’t even won a majority of delegates so far, why is the media portraying them to be the presumptive nominees?  The answer is less to do with math and more with scheduling.  The early Republican primaries and caucuses tend to allocate delegates more proportionally, while the later ones allocate using a winner take all system.  In most states, Trump has rather safe, steady leads, and instead of having to split delegates proportionally with the losers, he will soon win all delegates from each state.  This is crucial for Trump, who leads many states with a comfortable plurality of voters but not a majority.  That situation has cost him delegates up until now, but starting March 15th when every contest is winner take all, he will be racking up all the available delegates without having to worry about his margins of victory.

Meanwhile, the early primary and caucus states have actually been rather generous to Sanders demographically.  Nationally, he is losing to Clinton 52% to 38%, and his 14 point deficit puts him in an especially dire situation because, unlike the Republicans, Democrats award their delegates more proportionally.  This means that he not only needs to catch up to Clinton in a more diverse slew of states than he has already won, but he also must win by large margins in order to overcome his current delegate deficit.

At the end of the day, can we say for sure that Trump and Clinton have their respective nominations locked up?  The numbers say no.  But perhaps more importantly, the calendar says that unless something drastic happens soon, the numbers won’t be so tenuous for long.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

Nevada Democratic Caucuses and South Carolina Republican Primaries: The New State of the Race

Yesterday, 735,000 Republicans in South Carolina and about 80,000 Democrats in Nevada1 headed to the polls and voted or caucused in the third day of voting in this year’s primary cycle. Here, we break down what exactly happened yesterday and what it means going forward.
 
South Carolina Republican Primary

Coming out of New Hampshire, Donald Trump had won big, John Kasich pulled out a surprising second place finish, Jeb Bush was riding high on beating Marco Rubio, who was suffering after an embarrassing debate performance, and Ted Cruz still confident after his win in Iowa. New Hampshire and Iowa had served to narrow the field a bit, forcing Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina and Chris Christie out. In South Carolina, Trump looked poised to pull off another large victory, leaving Cruz and Rubio vying for third and Bush just not wanting to finish too far behind them. Kasich had absolutely no expectations going in and Ben Carson is somehow still running. And, as expected, Donald Trump ended up the big winner of the night.

Candidates Pct. Delegates
D. Trump 32.5%
50
M. Rubio 22.5%
0
T. Cruz 22.3%
0
J. Bush 7.8%
0
J. Kasich 7.6%
0
B. Carson 7.2%
0

Trump won all of the delegates from yesterday’s contest, giving him a big lead heading into the Nevada Republican Caucuses and Super Tuesday. Rubio and Cruz ended up pretty much tied, but more importantly, Rubio showed that he has mostly recovered from his poor debate performance and is once again the conventional wisdom establishment-backed candidate. More unfortunately for Cruz, South Carolina is an example of why the delegate math is going to be challenging for him; Ted Cruz is expected to do best in many Southern states going forward, a large chunk of which are winner-take-all in each congressional district, meaning that a close second may not mean much in terms of actually winning him delegates.

But the biggest news coming out of South Carolina on the Republican side is that Jeb Bush has announced he is suspending his campaign. This is significant for two reasons. Although there are myriad think pieces dissecting why the Bush campaign failed, I will a chart which contains just one more reason.

Jeb Bush's Advertising

This chart adds together all of the advertising minutes from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina of TV ads from both the Bush campaign and Right To Rise, Bush’s primarily supporting SuperPAC. The biggest take away is that the campaign failed to really advertise until Bush had largely slipped in the polls and had little chance of recovery. It poured money into the first three states, but only right before they were to vote, meaning that they could only sway late-breaking voters. While there certainly are many late-breaking voters, they tend to vote strategically, meaning that if their primary focus is say, stopping Trump, they are more likely to vote for someone like Rubio than Bush. Bush’s advertising campaign simply came too late to substantially change public perception of him as a viable candidate.

Bush’s dropping out is significant for both electoral and monetary reasons. On the electoral side, it frees up the “establishment lane” of the GOP. With Bush and Christie now both out, more moderate, establishment-minded Republican voters really only have a choice between Kasich and Rubio. Taking a look at polling2, we can see specifically that this helps Rubio the most.

Jeb Bush Supporters Second Choice

We can then take the 6.3% of support that Bush had in the latest HuffPost Pollster average and split it up to the different candidates.

Polling with Bush support split up.

Clearly, Rubio is the biggest beneficiary to Bush dropping out, but that 6.3% being split multiple ways means that it honestly does not have a huge difference on pure polling numbers.

The second effect of Bush dropping out, freeing up big donors, is much more significant. Although Bush never got very far off the ground enticing voters, he was very successful in enticing donors. However, with him out of the race, many of these donors will be able to move their money around freely. And the general thinking is that many will move their money over to Rubio who can then use it to execute the same kind of attack-ad heavy campaign that allowed Romney to knock out his rivals in 2012.

Ultimately, the general thinking is that Bush’s dropping out leaves more room for Rubio to win over establishment support and use that support to win the nomination. However, with Trump and Cruz still putting up strong performance, even if Cruz cannot win many winner-take-all states, it seems increasingly likely that this race will drag on well past Super Tuesday.

 
Nevada Democratic Caucuses

On the Democratic side, yesterday brought more of a return to status quo than any substantial change. Although Bernie Sanders did better than expected in Iowa against Hillary Clinton and followed it up with a demanding victory in New Hampshire, Hillary Clinton has steadily been a strong favorite to win the nomination. Going into Nevada, it seemed as if some nebulous “momentum” might be on the side of Sanders, although little was certain because of a dearth of polling in the state. However, Hillary Clinton pulled off a convincing win over Sanders.

Candidates Pct. Delegates
H. Clinton 52.7%
22
B. Sanders 47.2%
16

Although her victory was not the 20+ point lead that was seen in the polling last fall, reflecting the overall growth of Sanders as a competitor to Clinton, it likely effectively stopped any momentum that Sanders had coming out of New Hampshire and Iowa. And heading into South Carolina, it will likely prevent the downward trend in Clinton’s polling there that she has experienced since December. Nevada also showed that Clinton’s lead among Latino voters is not as commanding as it was eight years ago3 and South Carolina will let us know if her lead over Sanders among Black voters is as strong as it is assumed to be.

All in all, the Nevada caucuses did very little to change the Democratic race drastically; rather, it restored it back to the conventional wisdom that Clinton will win the nomination. South Carolina will be another test of this hypothesis. If Clinton is able to come away there with a commanding lead, she will have the momentum, and demographics, behind her.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Iowa Preview: Playing the Expectations Game

After months of speculation about who will run, many debates, and discussion of candidates’ chances, tomorrow, February 1st, we get to learn the first results of the election cycle as Iowa heads to the caucuses tomorrow evening. Although we will be providing rolling analysis as results come in tomorrow, we have also put together this article to help you know what to watch for tomorrow.

Arguably the most important thing to watch for tomorrow is how the candidates do relative to expectations. The first way to track expectations is by looking at win probabilities; if a candidate who is given a small chance of winning the caucuses wins, that win will mean much more than an expected win. FiveThirtyEight has put together what they call a “polls-plus” model1 to assign a probability of winning Iowa to each candidate. PredictWise uses betting market data to derive a similar probability for each candidate.
Win Probabilities for Iowa: Republicans
Win Probabilities for Iowa: Democrats
These two methods produce fairly similar results, but both are worth noting. FiveThirtyEight’s probabilities represent what the polls are showing may happen, so those who follow polling closely will build their expectations to be similar to that model’s. On the other hand, PredictWise uses betting markets, so those probabilities more closely represent the “common wisdom” of what will happen. Because the “common wisdom” is affected so much by media portrayals and how the media spins Iowa will be crucial, it is especially worth paying attention to.

So, what do these probabilities actually tell us? Well, on the Republican side they tell us mainly that Donald Trump is a favorite to win the caucuses. That means that Trump needs to win Iowa or else his campaign will be seen as falling apart. Similarly, despite close polling between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Clinton is the overwhelming favorite to win Iowa. However, because she has only a small lead in the polls, a loss by Clinton would probably not affect her as much as a loss by Trump would affect him.

In addition to looking at the probabilities of winning, another key part of playing the expectations game is how a candidate does relative to their polling. To understand this effect, we looked at all candidates in the last three cycles (2004, 2008, 2012) and averaged the three Iowa polls released closest to the Iowa caucuses. We then compared these to actual results of Iowa result to get an “Iowa Result against Expectation.”2 We did a similar three poll average of New Hampshire polls prior to Iowa held their caucuses and a three poll average of New Hampshire for the days after Iowa held their caucuses. This allows us to detect a change in New Hampshire’s polling which can, in part, be attributed to the results in Iowa3. Using this data4, we created the following chart. In this chart, the dot size indicates the actual share of Iowa vote that each candidate won.
Iowa: The Expectations Game
While not incredibly strong, there is clearly a positive correlation between Iowa results against expectation and changes in New Hampshire polls. By looking in the upper left quadrant, it is also very clear that candidates who beat expectations significantly and win a fairly large share of the vote tend to get the strongest boost in New Hampshire. However, to quantify this relationship a bit more, we can run a linear regression through this data.
Iowa: The Expectations Game
By running this linear regression, we find that a candidate who beats expectations by 1 percentage point in Iowa can expect, on average, to improve their standing in New Hampshire by 0.583 percentage points5. So, the effect is not huge, but it is distinct. Certainly, Trump’s and Sanders’ leads in New Hampshire polling are large enough that it seems unlikely for this boost from Iowa to propel anyone ahead of them. However, in the Republican race, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie are all so tightly packed that a stronger than expected showing in Iowa (or a weaker than expected one) could change the race significantly.

So, tomorrow when the results start to come in, while everyone will be watching mainly to see who wins, make sure to pay attention to how the candidates perform relative to current polling in order to see how New Hampshire and the rest of the race may shake up. And, of course, join us for our liveblog!

Footnotes   [ + ]

Simplifying the Crowded Republican Field

After five Republican debates and what has seemed like endless weeks of campaigning, many news organizations are giving increased coverage to the primary race. It seems like every single day a new poll is released, and each new poll is met with analysis about what it means for each individual candidate. While this sort of analysis fills up time for our 24 hour news media, it also ignores a simple truth about the Republican race: with nine candidates still competitive, the field remains too crowded for any one candidate to become dominant. Sure, Trump is considered the “frontrunner” by polls and the news media, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys majority support among Republican primary voters. The actual breakdown of results for the top nine candidates invited to the last debate looks like this:

Admittedly, the data still shows that Trump is maintaining a commanding lead over other candidates. However, Trump’s 38% support in the polls hardly guarantees him victory, as he would need over 50% of the delegates to secure the nomination.1 Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, it seems like his support has more or less maxed out at its current levels. We here at Electoral Statistics have already explained how Trump sees little to no bump in support when poll respondents are asked to choose between candidates in a smaller GOP primary field, even though he has a commanding lead in the current polls. Support for more traditional candidates is currently split among the wide crowd, but is likely to coalesce behind one or two more traditional candidates when the field inevitably starts to winnow down. This means that Trump is likely to face increased competition in the future as other candidates approach him in the polls. 38% support gives one a commanding lead in the polls when there are nine competitive candidates left in the race, but doesn’t look as dominant once the field narrows to two or three candidates. Worse, even as a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed him in the lead by a whopping 23% margin, it also showed that only 29% of registered voters in the general populace would be very or even somewhat comfortable with a Trump presidency.

A better way to look at the polls is to split the candidates between the outsider candidates and the more mainstream candidates. This more accurately represents how the field will look at a later stage in the race, once the field has narrowed down to a clear establishment favorite. Treating Trump and Ben Carson as the “outsiders” and everyone else as the more traditional candidates, we find an almost perfect split within the Republican Party, with the two main outsider candidates receiving 48.0% support in recent polls and the mainstream candidates receiving 42.4% of the support.2

This approximately half and half split is a telltale sign of the internal rift currently present within the Republican Party. Establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would likely have trounced outsider candidates like Trump or Carson in years past. However, the anti-establishment push that we first saw in 2012 with Republican voters giving brief surges in popularity to a whole slew of candidates before finally settling on Mitt Romney has grown stronger in the last four years. The result is that, with outsider candidates polling at near 50%, Republican leadership has been forced to consider scenarios in which their nominee is not an establishment favorite.

Of course, there is no fine line between outsider candidate and establishment candidate, and the perfect example of why that is true is the sudden polling rise of Ted Cruz. As a U.S. senator, Cruz is hardly a political outsider, and yet many members of the Republican leadership have shown open dislike for Cruz. A loner within the Republican Party, but also a high profile senator, Ted Cruz seems to have a foot in each camp. Because of Cruz’s ability to play to both outsider and insider support, many pundits have forecast that he would start to see a surge in the polls, and his increase from 6% to 13% support in the last two months means that those prognostications are becoming true.

The presence of firebrand Ted Cruz, who has equal standing both as an insider and outsider, means that the most effective way to split up the current long list of candidates is not to use the simple insider v. outsider approach, but rather to include a third option just for Ted Cruz. Breaking the race up into three categories creates a breakdown of support that looks like this.

Outsiders (Trump and Carson) – 48%

Cruz – 13%

Insiders (Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich, etc.) – 29.4%

While Trump and Carson enjoy the lead right now, our previous analysis shows that they will have a hard time keeping their numbers up and an even harder time acquiring new supporters. Carson’s support has been falling recently, and many of his evangelical voters have been turning to the Cruz camp. This means that even though the “outsider” category has the highest percent support here, they are not by any means in the strongest position. In addition to receiving defecting Carson supporters, Cruz also benefits from his ideological position between the outsider and insider camps. This means that if current supporters of insider or outsider candidates have doubts about their chosen camp or simply change their mind before the primaries and caucuses begin, they are more likely to switch to the Cruz camp than make the leap from insider to outsider or vice-versa. This means that even though Cruz has the lowest support of the triad, he is not necessarily in the worst position long-term.

That leaves the tired-and-true insider camp. They might be behind the outsiders right now, but it is also important to note that we have already seen a pivot to the establishment candidate after outsiders gained great traction early on just in the last election cycle, when Republican voters seemed to play a game of “anyone but Mitt Romney” before finally choosing Romney as the candidate. Additionally, endorsements from influential figures have often been much more predictive of final primary outcomes than early polling data, and establishment candidates have dominated both the outsiders and Ted Cruz in getting influential endorsements.

It’s still too early to determine which of these three camps will ultimately win out. History tells us the more moderate, establishment candidates are favored in the long run, but we’ve also not seen a campaign with such anti-establishment fervor in recent history. Regardless, narrowing the crowded field down to three groups serves as a useful analytical tool, and can help us make more accurate predictions as the race progresses.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Just How Important is the House Freedom Caucus?

The House Freedom Caucus has been huge in the news recently. They brought down Speaker John Boehner, ended Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid to replace Boehner, and their blessing was the final step for Rep. Paul Ryan to go ahead with his bid for the speaker’s gavel. But given all of the press surrounding the HFC, just how influential are they?

Because we are statistics junkies here at Electoral Statistics, we of course are going to turn to numbers to answer this question. For now, we are going to put aside their influence in the Speaker’s race (which was visibly large) and consider whether they are all that influential legislatively. When talking about the House, most activity goes on behind closed doors, so the public is only able to understand a certain amount of the influence of any one legislator. However, one of the primary points of influence for the HFC is their supposed position as obstructionists. For this, we can look at roll call data1 to find when certain legislators voted against their party leaders. Because we are looking at the HFC, we will focus on Republican leaders (although I may apply this same technique later to Democrats). “The leadership” is a broad, nebulous term, but in this case we looked at the two main GOP House leaders: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steven Scalise.2 It turns out that this year, Scalise and McCarthy voted together all but one time on the final passage of bills. That one time, Scalise did not vote, so it can be ignored.3 Because of the similarity in the voting records of Scalise and McCarthy, we choose McCarthy’s voting record to be the main point of reference to represent the GOP House Leadership. The most simplistic analysis is to look at how often legislators vote against McCarthy.4 By this metric, the top five dissenters are:

Legislator (District) Percent of Dissenting Votes
Jones (NC 3) 34%
Amash (MI 3) 25%
Gibson (NY 19) 25%
Massie (KY 4) 21%
Dold (IL 10) 21%

Amash (bolded) is the only member of the HFC in the top five. However, many of these votes are simple procedural ones or votes on amendments. The more powerful vote a representative has is on the final passage of bills, so we can narrow it down to just these votes and find the following:

Legislator (District) Percent of Dissenting Votes on Bills
Jones (NC 3) 47%
Amash (MI 3) 34%
Massie (KY 4) 28%
Sanford (SC 1) 22%
Gibson (NY 19) 21%

By this more specific metric, only Amash and Sanford (again bolded) are HFC members. So clearly, HFC members are not the most contrarian Republicans, but they still occupy some of the top seats. In total, the average HFC member votes against the leadership 10% of the time, while the average Republican only does so 7% of the time. The difference becomes starker when again restricting to just votes on the final passage of bills, where the average Republican dissented only 5% of the time while the average HFC member did so 10% of the time. Furthermore, of all the votes cast against the leadership, 20% came from HFC members, who only make up 14% of the Republican House Caucus.5 Again restricting to votes only on the final passage of a bill, HFC members cast 33% of votes against the leadership, which is double the portion of the House GOP members in the HFC. Clearly, although HFC members are not much more contrarian than your average Republican in the House when looking at all votes, they are significantly more willing to vote against the leadership on a bill.

However, this simplistic analysis ignores a key fact: not all votes are created equal. For example, votes taken on the big budget deal that just passed the House is of significantly more importance than, say HR 623 which established a “Social Media Working Group” in the Department of Homeland Security. As such, a dissenting vote on the budget was probably a bigger deal than HR 623, but such judgements of the importance of bills (or amendments or any other business that the House votes on) is rather subjective. Moreover, the House has had about 580 roll call votes to date, and just under 80 were on the final passage of bills. Indexing the importance of these bills individually is therefore not very feasible. However, we are not just interested in how important a singular vote is, but specifically how important a dissenting vote is. For example, if a bill passes by just one vote, every dissenting vote is a lot more meaningful than a bill that passes with 217 votes to spare, meaning that the dissenting vote was the only dissenter. From this idea, we have created something called the Dissent Importance Index (DII). This is a simple, linear model that maps how important any singular dissenting vote is. If for a particular vote, a representative votes on the same side as the leadership, their DII for that vote is a 0. If they vote against the leadership, their DII falls between 0 and 100, where 100 means that that representative was the deciding vote and 0 meaning that the only impact of that dissenter was to rob the leadership from a unanimous vote. We treat the relationship between the margin of victory6 and DII as affine.7 In this way, we assign each legislator a DII for each vote, which we can then sum or average over all votes in order to draw some conclusions about how often representatives vote against leadership in important votes.

The HFC member has a DII average of 7.06 across all votes, while the average Republican has a DII average of 5.67 across all votes. Restricting to just bills, HFC members average a DII average of 6.56 across votes on the final passage of a bill, compared to 3.04 for all Republicans. Although when considering all votes, HFC members only have a slightly higher DII average than an average Republican representative, their record of voting against the leadership remains much more steady on the final passage of bills than the average Republican. We can also give each representative a DII sum, meaning their DII from each vote added together. While this is not entirely informative in the abstract, we can use it to find how much of the total DII of the House GOP the HFC makes up. This is still a bit abstract, but it gives us insight into how impact the HFC is as a whole body. On all votes, the HFC makes up 18% of the total GOP DII, which is not much more than the 14% of the House Republican Caucus that makes up the HFC. However, on just the final passage of bills, the HFC makes up 32% of total GOP DII, double its membership portion. Using the DII confirms the story told by just the raw percentages, which is that the HFC is definitely slightly more willing to vote against the leadership than the average Republican, but when it comes to the final passage of bills, they are much more likely to vote against the leadership.

In the end, the House Freedom Caucus is clearly a body which is hostile to the leadership of the House GOP Caucus. At a macro level, they appear to be no more hostile than any other Republican group.  However their influence clearly stems from their willingness to disobey the leadership on key votes concerning the final passage of bills. While many Republicans are willing to diverge from the leadership on procedural votes or amendments, when it comes to the final vote for a bill, they tend to fall in line. The HFC does not follow this same pattern, and in their willingness to compromise on the passage of bills, they find their power.

Edit (November 13, 2015): You can now check out our data and the code we used to scrape the data on our GitHub.

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