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Another switch confirms homing in for political advantage

As more elected state Democrats leave the sinking ship, understand the motivations aren’t really because of changing views or that their former party has suddenly lurched even more to the left, but of cool, political calculation to do what’s best for their careers.

What began as a trickle, with state Rep. Simone Champagne taking the plunge just after the end of the 2010 session of the Legislature, became a cannonball competition after the midterm election wipeout for national Democrats. State Rep. Walker Hines jumped next, followed by state Sens. John Smith and John Alario, and now state Rep. Fred Mills has joined them. But were we to compare their actual voting behavior over the past three years with their new identification we would conclude it’s simply a case of them coming home.

Using the Louisiana Legislature Log’s ideology/reformism scorecard, from 2008 we can calculate each legislator’s average score (where 100 means conservative/reform votes on all issues, weighed proportionally, used in the index) and compare it to the average Republican and Democrat score in each chamber. Doing so presents the following rank ordering, House members first:

Champagne: 76.67

Hines: 75.00

Republican House Avg.: 71.96

Mills: 71.67

Democrat House Avg.: 44.10

Smith: 71.67

Alario: 67.33

Republican Senate Avg.: 61.13

Democrat Senate Avg. 43.83

As shown, only Mills even is a trace below the typical Republican, and all score far more conservative/reform than their Democrat colleagues. If anything, with their switches they have brought their identities into conformity with their expressed beliefs. Yet the larger question is why switch now and the answer is politics. In the past they maintained identifications aberrant with their views because of the electoral and political advantages conveyed. For three reasons, for these politicians those have eroded.

Consider that, because of the blanket primary system that provides no incentive for registered voters to align their own identifications with beliefs, the historical hangover of Democratic registration advantage continues to exist in many legislative districts. Only a handful of legislative districts, by the numbers, even have a Republican plurality. And even if weakened by the perverse incentives of the blanket primary system, party identification still is a meaningful cue for many voters. (It’s no accident that all but one of these switches have occurred from the West Bank west through Acadiana, where the state’s greatest divergence is seen between districts’ national contest voting behavior and overall identifications.)

However, the imperative is dramatically empowered in the case of black voters. Conditioned by elites that, for whatever reason, they trust, many black voters won’t consider voting for anybody but a Democrat. This gave a tactical advantage to candidates who voted more conservative/reform than not who would call themselves Democrats as these votes would disappear had they labeled themselves otherwise – especially as they did not have to compete in a closed primary system where the incongruence between identification and belief would catch them out competing in a Democrat primary consisting of a much more liberal/populist electorate.

So, part of the motivation is that they now figure they can overcome the disadvantage they are going to give themselves among black voters relative to where they are now, and a much smaller one among non-blacks, with at least some additional Republican voters. But also regarding the timing is that they see (dramatically borne out by the Democrat midterm fiasco) within the year Republicans will control, perhaps comfortably, both chambers of the Legislature. Party is not as important in the distribution of power in the Louisiana Legislature as it is in Congress, but it matters for things like committee and leadership assignments which are of strategic importance to legislators in their careers and in providing material to stay in office or to advance to others.

Finally, with redistricting approaching and it becoming increasingly clear that Republicans will control the process, jumping on the winning team will enhance the chance that their districts get drawn favorably for reelection purposes. (As a public service announcement, Louisiana redistricting will be a topic of discussion at the Southern Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting in New Orleans at 4:45 PM Friday, Jan. 7, where I and other political scientists will take up the matter. Inquiries may be made here.)

Therefore, these switches represent not rank, obvious opportunism against (at least recent) type, but, rather, subtle moves to continue to follow a tide they largely have been riding with for some time – even as you should not be fooled by generic explanations about “how the Democrats left me” as their voting behaviors show they left that party some time ago.

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