The conventional wisdom on Congress is, to quote the late Will Rogers, “We have the best Congress money can buy.” If you want to know how elected leaders will vote, or why they voted as they did, “follow the money.” That’s an easy narrative to believe. It resonates on reasonable skepticism of those in elected office, and we can usually find examples – historical and current – where it’s true.

But widely-repeated and intuitively-believed narratives aren’t always factually accurate. If we’re to be a “reality-based community” – and if we’re to be more effective progressive advocates – it’s useful to test even our most widely repeated and intuitively believed narratives against observable data. And the data suggest you can “follow the money,” but it doesn’t lead quite where we usually think.

More below the fold….

Do Senate Votes “Follow the Money?” Not Exactly. (Non-Cynical Saturday)

The Senate bill that emerged from the health care reform debate has been presented as if it were a case study in “follow the money.” The insurance lobby spent an estimated $1.4 million a day during the debate. While the Center for Responsive Politics found a much lower figure – about $500,000 a day – that’s still a lot of money. And despite national public opinion polls showing roughly 2/3rds support for a public option, the public option was dropped from the Senate bill.

“Follow the money,” right?

Well, sort of, but not the way we usually think. The “follow the money” narrative makes an implicit prediction, one that can be tested against observable data: the more insurance lobby money a senator receives, the more likely he/she will oppose the public option. But for Senate Democrats – the key players in the health care debate – the data don’t support that prediction.

The top ten insurance industry recipients:

According to OpenSecrets.org data, the top ten Senate Democratic recipients of insurance industry money were: Chuck Schumer (NY), Chris Dodd (CT), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Harry Reid (NV), Evan Bayh (IN), Kirsten Gillibrand (NY), Patty Murray (WA), Ben Nelson (NE), Ron Wyden (OR), and Tom Carper (DE). If the “follow the money” narrative were true, those should be the Senate Democrats least supportive of the public option. Except they weren’t.

Of the four Senate Democratic hold-outs in November, only two – Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Ben Nelson – were among the top ten insurance industry recipients. While Sens. Evan Bayh, Ron Wyden, and Tom Carper criticized the public option early in deliberations, none openly opposed it once Majority Leader Reid inserted it in the Manager’s Bill. Senators Chuck Schumer, Chris Dodd, and Kirsten Gillibrand advocated for public option, and as noted, Majority Leader Reid put it in the Manager’s Bill that went to the Senate floor. If the industry were buying votes, most of the top-ten recipients didn’t stay bought.

The four Senate Democratic hold-outs and …

The Democratic hold-outs who refused to vote for cloture unless the public option were removed were Sens. Mary Landreau (LA), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Ben Nelson (NE), and Bill Nelson (FL).

Note: I’m not including Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), as his opposition seems to have been partisan and ideological. What’s more, even if Sen. Lieberman had not opposed the public option, Majority Leader Reid still needed the four Democratic senators above to win cloture.

As noted above, two of those were among the top ten Senate Democratic recipients of insurance industry money. But only Sen. Lincoln was in the top five. Senator Landreau wasn’t in the top ten, yet she was among the most vocal public option opponents and the first to demand concessions for her vote. Senator Bill Nelson wasn’t in the top ten either. Insurance industry campaign money is at best a weak predictor here. Is there a more consistent predictor? In fact there is….

… their states’ public opinion polls:

Health care public opinion polling was erratic and often skewed by how the question was posed. Still, there was some data:

  1. Arkansas – The September R2K/DK poll showing 55% support vs. 38% opposed seems to have been an outlier. An August PPP poll showed 60% opposed, although that also seems like an outlier. A late-October University of Arkansas poll, had a larger sample set and seems to be the most reliable view of Arkansans’ opinions. It showed 48% opposed vs. 39% support, and a clear split between the insured opposing and the uninsured supporting the public option.
  1. Florida – An October Miami Herald poll showed similar results in Florida, with 47% opposed vs. 40% support. A December Zogby poll showed it closer with 47% opposed vs. 46% support.
  1. Nebraska – An October R2K/DK poll found a slender plurality favoring a public option, 46% support vs. 44% opposed, but a November Rasmussen poll showed 64% opposed, and a September R2K/DK poll showed results similar to those in Arkansas and Florida, with 47% opposed vs. 39% support.
  1. Louisiana – An October Rasmussen poll showed 61% opposed vs. 36% support. The only other polls I could find for Louisiana were funded by GOP and/or industry groups, and showed even stronger opposition.

Simply, all four Senate Democratic hold-outs represented states where most polls did not show consistent majority support for the public option. Those senators arguably voted their constituents’ preferences.

And that’s where the money went.

When we hear a statement like “$1.4 million a day in lobbying money,” we commonly assume that’s going into elected officials’ campaign coffers to buy or at least influence their votes. In fact, the vast majority of that money was spent on TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, and internet ads, billboards, direct mailers, think tank talking point spewers, and those industry-funded astroturf protests.

In short, most of that money was spent to influence Fred, our archetypal median voter:

Fred

And at least in Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, and Nebraska, it seems to have worked. The industry money swayed enough Freds to push the public opinion polls away from progressive health care reform, and with their states’ polls went the four Democratic hold-outs’ votes.

Good news, bad news:

The good news, if you value “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is that public opinion does matter. Health care reform is only one data point, but it suggests that on high-profile legislation where there has been extensive public discussion, Democratic senators are likely to vote their constituents’ expressed preference. (Republican senators opposed health care reform on partisan and ideological grounds.) This is suggested by not only the campaign contributions vs. voting data, but the huge amount of industry money spent to influence public opinion. Why would lobbyists spend tens of millions of dollars on ads, push-polls, and astroturf protests if they thought our opinions were irrelevant?

The bad news, if you value “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” is that industry money does influence public opinion and hence our leaders’ votes. Calling and emailing our public officials to tell them our opinions is not enough. They heed randomly-sampled polls more than self-sampled phone calls and emails.

“Follow the money?” Sure. But follow the money to Fred. To win legislative battles, we progressives have to reach and hold Fred, not just nationally but in every state and district where a senator’s or representative’s vote is needed. If we lose Fred in a state or district, we probably lose the votes of those who represent Fred. Because that’s how representative government works.

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Happy Saturday!