by Gene Giannotta
A couple weeks ago, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a large margin. Sixty-four senators voted for it, including a number of Republicans. But it’s unlikely to make it through the House - Speaker Boehner has said he won’t bring it to the floor, and even if he did, the GOP majority would seem to be a large stumbling block.
But recent research by the Williams Institute finds that majorities in every House district support the legislation, saying this “confirms that ENDA would pass if all members followed their constituents.”
Over at the Monkey Cage blog, Andrew Gelman points to this as evidence that, if brought to a vote, the bill should pass in the House. He also cites an earlier piece showing that support was very strong in every state, which meant that passage in the Senate should be a sure thing, too. If senators all voted based on the overwhelming levels of public support in their states. After all, the lowest level of support was in Mississippi, and that was 63%!
Alas, Mississippi’s two senators voted “nay,” as did a few dozen others. So popular support among constituents, even very high levels of support, is no guarantee of votes in Congress.
Gelman, however, seems to think that high levels of public support in every district means that representatives will be hard-pressed to vote in any way other than for the bill.
Regarding primary elections: Yes, Republican Congress members have to worry about the attitudes of conservative Republican primary election voters. But that’s not the whole story, as they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts. To put it another way, general attitudes in the district are relevant, and with 70-80 percent support overall, I don’t think primary voters can be as opposed as all that.
Regarding the issue of intensity of support: The suggestion is that voters who oppose gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than voters who support gay rights. It is possible, but I have no particular reason to believe it—if anything, given the nature of the issue, I’d be inclined to believe the opposite, that supporters of gay rights feel more strongly about the issue than do opponents. And you’d need a huge huge difference in intensity to overcome the huge disparities in support that we see from the polls.
I especially want to highlight this: “they also try not to go counter to vast majorities of the people in their districts.” That sounds reasonable, but is not the reality. After all, many senators did just that apparently. And, as the Williams Institute itself points out, “When a similar bill was considered in 2007, 183 members of the U.S. House of Representatives voted against it, even though a majority of their constituents supported the policy.”
There are other examples, too. Say, gun control. Large majorities - around 90% - back universal background checks, but that has not helped legislation pass, not even in the wake of a seemingly endless string of mass shootings.
And while Gelman notes that supporters of gay rights are probably quite enthusiastic about achieving policy changes like ENDA, that’s not the real question here. I doubt that even if three-quarters of a particular district supports passing ENDA, three-quarters of that district is ready to mobilize politically to encourage their representatives to vote for it. Perhaps in some cases, but all? No, one can support - even “strongly” support - a particular policy without necessarily being ready to act. And when it comes to effecting political change, what matters is not responses to surveys, but action.
These findings, while interesting and useful in helping us understand attitude trends, don’t really help us understand why particular representatives might act a certain way. There is no conceivable universe in which all 435 representatives vote “aye” for passage of ENDA. The simplest explanation for why is that for many, especially Republicans, there just isn’t any incentive that translates passive support (attitudes reported as favorable) into the possibility of electoral punishment should a given congressperson vote against it.
Hypothetically, a very liberal district and a very conservative district could both see levels of support for passing ENDA in the 70% range, let’s say. But elections don’t occur in policy vacuums. This might place higher in terms of a liberal constituencies’ priorities when judging candidates on Election Day, but even if they support ENDA, it’s doubtful that conservative voters would punish a candidate who otherwise aligns with their preferences on most, if not all, other policy areas just because of this issue.