Moderation From Iowa’s Third Congressional District Means Little

Supporters hold up ‘Vote’ sign at an Obama rally in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo by Emily Hoerner)

Rep. Tom Latham won the 3rd Congressional District against fellow moderate Rep. Leonard Boswell Tuesday night. However, in today’s political climate, politicians who are moderate in their personal dispositions have little ability to behave in such a manor. According to data by Poole, Rosenthal, and Lewis, both House members were relatively moderate in comparison with the rest of the country in their liberal to conservative ranking. To see how your representative fits in the national scene, view the interactive map. Then listen to Tim Hagle, University of Iowa political science professor, explain possible solutions to Congressional gridlock. To enable moderation the country may require a crisis, he said. 

By Emily Hoerner

Iowa Rep. Tom Latham may have seized victory over former incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell in a new district with a majority of Democrats, but his moderate reputation disguises his political legislative voting record.

Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa.

Iowa’s new 3rd District sprawls from Des Moines, west to Council Bluffs. In 2008 Polk County voted 56.4 percent for Democratic President Barack Obama, while the areas like Adair, Madison, and Pottawattamie all went to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The race ended up with 54 percent Latham, and 45 percent Boswell, a result of the diverse district. And both incumbents were widely considered moderate members of their respective parties.

Boswell is the 20th most moderate Democrat in the 112th House of Representatives out of 194 party members, according to data gathered by political science professorsKeith Poole from the University of Georgia, Howard Rosenthal from New York University and Jeff Lewis from UCLA. Their data also showed that out of 242 Republicans, Latham is ranked the 45th most moderate. There are no Democrats who are more conservative than any Republicans, and no Republicans who are more liberal than any Democrats.

(To view the full map of House rankings, click here)

In relative terms, both incumbents are moderate in comparison to the rest of their party. However, in practice their voting records show that neither act like members willing to work across the aisle.

Both campaigns didn’t return calls to IowaWatch.

According to The Washington Post’s U.S. Congressional votes database, Boswell voted with the Democratic party 83 percent of the time, while Latham voted with the Republican party 90 percent of the time.

Largely because of such party-line voting, experts say in today’s political climate, moderate members of the House are moderates in name only.

Listen: Congressional Compromise and Crisis

Sam Abrams, co-author of “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” said the definition of a moderate has changed in the past 35 to 40 years.

“Even if you have someone who gets elected in a moderate district, it is very hard to exist and play that role in Congress,” he said. “The party doesn’t support you.”

Abrams said in Washington, even when a candidate’s personal disposition may be moderate, it is very difficult act that way because to be successful and to get chair positions, you need to work with a party.

“All congressmen need to make sure they get reelected. If not, nothing else can be done,” he said. “If that is the first goal, there is a certain end game you have to play.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a Romney rally in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo by Emily Hoerner)

Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said there are incentives, even among people who represent the same district, to conform to the parties wishes in Washington.

For example, Hansen said, take Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Harkin is no conservative Democrat, while Grassley is no middle-of-the-road member either, he said.

“You would never mistake them for each other, even though they represent the same constituency,” Hansen said.

Which is why Latham and Boswell vote along party lines most of the time. On important legislation, both typically voted with their party.

Latham voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to stop federal funding of National Public Radio, and against the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles budget plan.

And although Boswell strayed across party lines and voted with Republicans on a measure to jump-start the proposed oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, he voted for Iraq troop reduction, and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” along with most Democrats.

To see the full list of votes compiled by The Washington Post, click here for Latham/Boswell.

Bruce Cain, an expert on congressional redistricting from the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email that money, party activist pressure, and national conditions — like the realignment of parties over the civil rights movement — creates higher partisanship in Congress.

“Over time the party distributions…have separated so that a more moderate member in 2012 is less moderate than his or her counterpart 20 years ago,” Cain said.

And voting along party lines might be just what a congressional member’s voters asked for.

Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections at the University of California, San Diego, said that representatives are pressured by the parties once they arrive in Congress, and generally acclimate with their wishes.

Rep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

“They tend to match pretty well with voters,” he said. “Members represent their electoral constituencies.”

That constituency refers to the majority, no matter how small, of the near-33 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in non-presidential election years, Jacobson said. And that is because they worry about the primary constituencies, who tend to be stronger ideologically.

But even though Boswell and Latham often side with their respective parties when voting on legislation, Jacobson said the idea of being a “moderate” isn’t irrelevant.

“A lot of what goes on in Congress happens in committees and subcommittees,” Jacobson said. “It is an area where they can moderate.”

To see the full-length version, click here.

Sandy Smoothes the Mood

As Hurricane Sandy’s destructive winds hurdled waves up and down the coast of New Jersey the past few days, a new aura of agreement has arisen between President Barack Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

The New York Times has a photo of the two men — who often reside at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — walking side by side in an effort to clean up the mess that is now New Jersey.

As many are probably well aware, this crisis event is creating a “rally around the flag” response from politicians. The partisan qualms that have kept Christie away from President Obama, and next to candidate Mitt Romney, have been thrown out the window.

The reaction to Sandy is similar to the September 11 terrorist attacks that brought the Republicans and Democrats together in 2001. But I wonder how long the bipartisan nature will last, and how large of a crisis it would take to cause a permanent shift in the parties.

Events like the Gabby Giffords shooting and the Aurora, Colorado movie theater attack didn’t seem to do the trick, but a natural disaster with a long recovery could instill some long-term relationships.

Although the country wishes those along the east coast a fast recovery, we cannot forget what Mayor Rahm Emanuel once famously warned — never let a serious crisis go to waste.

Interested in more on polarization? Check out my first story in a three part series tomorrow morning at

The Path to Polarization: The existence of a “culture war” has become common thought in America, but is the war real? Stop by tomorrow to find out. 

They Really Care Who Wins

As I mentioned in last week’s post, according to the American National Election Studies survey, 68 percent of respondents believe politics is too complicated for people like them.

On a similarly interesting note, the amount of respondents who said they are interested in public affairs “some of the time” and “most of the time” is around the same percentage who say politics is too complicated. Check out the interactive table from the ANES data.

But when I looked at more data, I found something a little strange. According to more ANES data, the percentage of respondents who care which party wins the general election has risen steadily since the 1980s. See the interactive table to see the rise more clearly. In 2008, 80 percent of responds said they cared a good deal which party won.

The last survey question suggests the public is more divided. They appear to me more passionate about which party has control of the White House. However, it could also mean the parties have become more distinct from one another than in the past.

Another ANES survey question asks respondents whether they believe the two parties — Republicans and Democrats — stand for different things. The results show respondents seeing an increasingly large difference between Democrats and Republicans since 2000.

These surveys could mean that voters are more polarized, or that they are simply being given more polarized choices. Or it may even be a combination of both.

To read more about whether the public is polarized or not, stay tuned for my story next week on

Politics is Too Complicated

During my research in looking at polarization, my interview with John Pierce got me thinking more about knowledge.

In order for the public to be polarized, you would think they have to understand why they don’t approve the oppositions policies.

But how much do the masses really know?

According to an American National Election Studies survey, during the 2008 election year 68 percent of respondents agreed that “sometimes politics and government seem so complicated that a person like me can’t really understand what’s going on.”

More than a majority of Americans believe politics is too complicated, and that number has stayed pretty steady since 1952, with the average percentage of respondents agreeing at 68.3 percent.

Although that number seems excruciatingly high, lets not forget that American politics is pretty complicated, both in terms of policy and structure.

Take the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush as an example. Because of the unique rule enacting the electoral college, a candidate can win the popular vote but not the presidency.

And the fact that states each have their own constitution, while the US Constitution overrules those of a state could be confusing.

Or take pretty much any major piece of legislation passed in Congress. Most people would probably understand the general aims of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, but few could explain the intricacies of the bill and weigh the long-term costs with the benefits, including myself.

But still, 68 percent seems pretty morbid, not to mention detrimental to the idea of democracy.

Debate Shows Students Aren’t So Different

Lauren Pardun is an undecided voter because she said doesn’t see herself in Congress.

Caroline Dvorsky, a Democrat who has already voted for President Obama, said she thinks her party has the best interests of college students at heart.

Krystal Rudick, a Republican, and said doesn’t think students from either party are all that different.

Pardun said she is hoping to use the debates as a way to solve the tough decision she has ahead of her. She said she supports one party for their social stances, and the other on economic issues.

A Real Rarity

Tuesday night I came across what I had almost started to believe didn’t exist.

A real, true — not to mention politically informed — independent voter.

Lauren Pardun is a senior at the University of Iowa, and although she follows public affairs closely, she hasn’t yet decided on a candidate.

Pardun said she was raised in an openly Republican household, but as she began to form her own opinions she wasn’t so sure she belonged to the right party.

She said this election cycle has left her stooped. She doesn’t know whether to vote for President Barack Obama or his opponent, Mitt Romney.

Before and after the presidential debates we hear commentators say how much influence they have on independent voters. Pardun said she watches the debates.

What she said she is looking for is less about policy and more about respect. The debates offer insight to presidential mannerisms, and Pardun said she wants the next president to respect international leaders they may not always agree with. But the decision is still difficult.

“I agree with one candidate on economic issues, but I do not agree with his social stances,” Pardun said.

She said she doesn’t trust either of the parties but finds both candidates likable.

But with the candidates so strongly connected to one party or the other, it is difficult to believe in them.

Pardun said she believes the country has others like her, who are more middle-of-the-road on the ideological scale.

“People are really insecure because they can’t find themselves in Congress,” she said. “They can’t see themselves in the government that runs their country.

To see more of Pardun’s interview, check in next Tuesday for a video story on the second presidential debate.

A Goodbye to the Moderates

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter died this Sunday morning.

Although the death of a former elected official is always upsetting, this one in particular sparked my interest.

In 2009 Specter did the unthinkable, he switched parties from Republican to Democrat. And during his tenure as a Republican, Specter often went against what he saw as the extreme right, and instead searched for a place in the middle.

Specter’s move to switch parties was a noisy one, and I wouldn’t suggest or expect other members of Congress to do the same. However, more people like him might help our polarized situation on Capitol Hill.

Instead we have lost yet another leader who was willing to bargain and to look at things differently, while the rigid party identifiers grow in size.

In a day when most politicians seem to put their party first, above their constituents and maybe even the country in general, it is nice to have Specter as a glimmer of hope that the party doesn’t always have to come first.

But some other races this election cycle might even reduce the meager number of moderates still in Congress.

Take, for example, the race in Iowa between Republican Rep. Tom Latham and Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell. Boswell is a long-time blue dog, who has a chance of being unseated because redistricting has pitted him against Latham.

Regardless of the outcome of this and future elections where moderates are at risk of losing, we can always remember that time Arlen Specter made the switch, infuriating party advocates and commentators everywhere.

Young Generation Has Little Hope for Future Compromise

As the public remains frustrated with gridlock and partisanship, young activists have little hope that anything will change soon. Party strength and the nomination process don’t lend themselves to compromise, making the process more difficult.

By Emily Hoerner

With the presidential election less than a month away, both former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are touting their goals of surpassing the bitter partisanship that has taken hold in Washington. But some young activists say that even with a new president, compromise at the congressional level might not to achievable right now.

Katherine Valde, president of the University Democrats at the University of Iowa, said the public is frustrated with the polarization at the congressional level because they don’t understand why the country can’t move forward.

“The party activists, the people who are most deeply ingrained in the parties, do see these deep divides [between the parties] and can’t work through them.”

But Valde said she doesn’t think if she was in a position of leadership right now she would be willing to compromise either.

“I can sit here and tell you that I think we need to work together more,” she said. “But Republicans need to move closer to the center instead of moving further and further right.”

Valde said she just couldn’t see a way that Democrats could compromise with the policies put forward by Republicans in Washington right now.

Marc J. Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, said he thinks a new group of politicians — including younger activists like Valde — could eliminate some of the polarization we see from leaders today.

“Polarization might be not such a big problem as the millennial generation comes into its full flower,” he said.

Hetherington said if the dividing issues in national focus change, it could also lead to less polarization in the future.

“We are divided by gay rights and terrorism, these really hot-button issues,” he said. “They are much more prone to cause us to see our differences than our similarities.”

Kelsey Boehm, president of the UI College Republicans, said she already sees trouble in the younger generations disconnect with her party on social issues like gay rights.

“A lot of students I find are liberal socially but conservative economically,” Boehm said.

Which is shown in the libertarian movement.

But Boehm said she still doesn’t see the compromise changing anytime soon at the elite level because of party primaries.

She said if you want to win the nomination, you have to appeal to the ideologically strong activists from your party. And once you’ve made those promises, it is hard to go back, Boehm said.

“In order to get the nomination though, I think I would have to be very conservative.”

In Democracy, Cheating is Easiest

From kindergarten to college, teachers, professors and parents have pounded into our minds that knowledge is the key to success, and that copying your friends chemistry test isn’t.

But in a democracy, copying your friends — a term I use loosely here to mean those who represent the same values as you — might be the most realistic way to participate.

Today I spoke with John C. Pierce, a political scientist at Kansas University who has studied everything from party identification to alternative energy issues. Pierce said that measuring the level of knowledge among the American public is difficult.

He said that the mass public’s level of knowledge depends on what a person thinks the public should be informed about.

“How deep do you think this knowledge ought to go,” he said. “Is it enough to know the general outlines of the debate, or do you need to get down enough to pass an exam?”

Most people, Pierce said, aren’t experts. Instead they follow groups that have protected their values in the past.

“People search for other mechanisms that substitute for knowledge at the individual level,” he said.

Mechanisms like parties. Those units of organization that have slowly became distinct from one another.

He gave the example of how it works with President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

At the general level people will both support and oppose the bill. The leaders will highlight key elements that fall in line with the group’s values. And if you’re aligned with that group or party because of those values, you tend to agree with them even if you don’t know the intricacies of the healthcare act, Pierce said.

“Most people haven’t read all of it, and you can’t expect them to,” he said.

By providing cues like this, the party is making a rational decision in campaigning.

And it is rational for the people too, because they won’t have to spend lots of energy wading through the bill, he said.

“They say this is what it’ll do and it supports these kinds of values,” Pierce said. “That goes a long way.”

If you’re interested in more on polarization continue reading my blog, and stop by in late October to read part one of my three part series.

Leave it to the Bosses

Yesterday I spoke with David Hoskins, an assistant professor at Boston University who does research on polarization. He said the conventional wisdom is that party organizations have become weaker since the 1950s.

And as the theory goes, because institutional rules took the decision of nominating candidates away from the party bosses and gave it to the states, they weakened.

Instead, the electorate was given the chance to choose a presidential nominee for the first time — think George McGovern in 1972 at the Democratic National Convention — whether the party bosses liked it or not.

“There is sort of a complicated relationship between that [change] and polarization,” Hoskins said.

He said before the 1950s the major parties didn’t tend to be all that ideological. Therefore, party elites would choose more moderate candidates because they wanted to win.

But since the power shifted to the electorate, the people with the strongest feelings were the ones most often participating.

“Giving power away to the primary voters might actually contributed to polarization,” Hoskins said.

And now we get back to the McGovern example.

“The party leaders would have said he is a terrible candidate for our party,” Hoskins said. “He is never going to win.”

The voters nominated a candidate who was more ideologically liberal than the party would have ever chosen.

It makes sense to me that the people who care most — and are probably the most ideologically divided — are the ones participating. But it really seems dangerous to democracy.

I think of our caucus process in Iowa. Although I’ve never participated, the people who do devote a large portion of their night to picking a candidate at each precinct.

In the Democratic caucus, precincts spend time debating and cajoling others to join their candidates group.

The Republican caucus isn’t as long of a process, but it still requires a trip, and time spent voting.

For the average citizen, I think voting multiple times a year would be time-consuming and exhausting. But people who really care would definitely want to participate, which could be why we end up with more ideologically separate candidates nominated.

Hoskins said he doesn’t see the country going back to allowing party bosses to make nomination decisions.

But maybe with party bosses in control, wouldn’t be so bad.