Monday, December 20, 2010

Defending Tip O'Neill

Andrew Gelman takes aim:
I'd go one step further and say that, sure, all politics are local--if you're Tip O'Neill and represent a ironclad Democratic seat in Congress. It's easy to be smug about your political skills if you're in a safe seat and have enough pull in state politics to avoid your district getting gerrymandered. Then you can sit there and sagely attribute your success to your continuing mastery of local politics rather than to whatever it took to get the seat in the first place.
Yes, but: don't most Members of the House have ironclad partisan districts?  And isn't the most important single thing they can do to protect themselves involve having pull in state politics to avoid being gerrymandered?  That is "all politics is local," no? 

There's also a fair amount they can do to stay on the good side of their local party, thus avoiding a primary fight.  And, even in an era of nationalized elections, there's still plenty a Member of Congress can do to to influence elections on the margins, and that's often what matters. 

Sure, "all" politics isn't that stuff, but it's quite a bit.  If I were a Member of Congress and had the choice between (A) controlling national tides, and (B) controlling my state's redistricting, then I'm going to choose B every time -- and that's in O'Neill's column. 


  1. It also depends on how you define the nature of the candidates.
    Incumbency could be said to be a local factor, in that they are only the incumbent for those voters in their districts. Similarly, the people in that district get only the choice between the candidates that the parties (and primaries) offer them in that area.

    Thus, if we give Tip WAY more credit than he's due, we could say that candidate quality is a feature of the local context. Combine the partisan leanings of the district with candidate quality, and you've done a HELL of a lot of explaining of congressional election results.

    Of course, Jacobson has shown that the emergence of quality challengers partially depends on national conditions. So, we could walk a lot of variance explanation back to the national level. But, if you want to predict congressional elections well, you are going to need to have data that is particularized to each race.

    Thus, when I teach Tip to my students, I teach it as a way of looking at the forces; the end result is the sum of 435 separate contests being held on the same day. But, there's a heck of a lot in common between those races in any given year.

  2. I'd say Gelman misinterprets O'Neill. The point about all politics being local is that people care less about an issue's national effects than they do about its local effects--and it's the locality that you have to go back to to get your votes from. Gerrymandered districts obviously effect that, making local politics much easier than it might otherwise be, but the statement per se--the concept behind it--doesn't have anything to do with Gerrymandering.

    (Note: A reader at my blog pointed me here. Looks like a good blog. I'll try to remember to come back from time to time.)


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