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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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The Politics of the Bailout Bill

The results of Monday's vote on the bailout bill, HR 3997, contain some illuminating patterns. A few people have noted that members of Congress facing competitive elections tended to vote against the bill. This is true, and significant. The roll call yielded some other important tendencies.

The following picture examines how Republican members of Congress voted by state: red indicates a nay vote, green a yay vote, and yellow a split result.

Republicans Vote.jpg

Let's break GOP support down by region.

For what it's worth, the remaining New England Republican, Chris Shays, voted in support of the bill. Support in the mid-Atlantic region was mixed. Pennsylvania and New Jersey Republicans voted against the bill. Opposition in the Keystone State among Republicans was particularly strong. However, New York Republicans were more supportive, with every member except Randy Kuhl voting in favor.

Republicans in the South Central region showed mixed support. GOP caucuses in Arkansas (aka John Boozman), Mississippi (aka Chip Pickering), and Alabama supported it. However, that was balanced by strong opposition in Tennessee, Louisiana, and especially Texas. Only four Republicans from the President's home state supported the bill.

South Atlantic Republicans also exhibited mixed support. Mike Castle of Delaware supported it, the two Republicans in Maryland split, and South Carolina voted in the affirmative. However, the bill was strongly opposed in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.

Opposition was very stiff in the Midwest, where ten of ten Republican caucuses voted in the negative. There was unanimous opposition in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Even in Ohio, home state of Republican leader John Boehner, seven Republicans voted against the bill.

Republican support in the West was split: there was opposition in Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, but more favorable results in California, Idaho, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.

What about the Democrats?

Democrats Vote.jpg

The leadership was able to extract a reasonable amount of discipline from Democrats on the east coast - with only Vermont, New Hampshire, and Georgia defecting from the party line.

Meanwhile, the bill again ran into trouble in the Midwest. Midwestern Democrats were more amenable than their Republican counterparts - particularly in the upper midwest. But Indiana Democrats voted nay, and Democrats in Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Michigan all split their votes. Mountain West Democrats voted heavily against the bill. And in California, Nancy Pelosi's home state, 15 of 36 Democrats voted against the bill.

The maps don't show it, but of the 19 members of Congress who represent New York City, parts of Long Island, or Westchester, there was just a single defection, José Serrano of the Bronx. The bill also received very strong support from members whose districts are near Washington, D.C. However, support was mixed in Los Angeles and Chicago, where all three South Side members (Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dan Lipinski, and Bobby Rush) voted in the negative.

A final note on the bill. The vote among members of the House Financial Services Committee broke along party lines. 25 of 37 Democrats voted in favor, while just 8 of 33 Republicans supported the bill. If members on the floor rely upon fellow partisans in the relevant committees for voting cues - perhaps it is no surprise that House Democrats followed Financial Service Democrats, and Republicans followed Financial Service Republicans.

This data presents an interesting perspective on the politics of the current financial crisis. Certainly it demonstrates the accuracy of the hackneyed "Main Street versus Wall Street" cliché . While metro Washington and New York members were strongly in support, the bill was hard pressed to find supportive members in the Midwest.

And yet both presidential candidates are running through the heartland advocating its passage. That's somewhat surprising when you think about it. It indicates to me that the politics of this issue do not directly favor one candidate over the other. Certainly, neither candidate is on the "right" side of public opinion. Remember: while the polls show mixed support for the bill, they do not measure intensity - which can matter in situations like this. If 30% is lukewarm in its support, 30% is uncertain, and 30% is dead-set against, as a political matter, the public is opposed.

So why have McCain's numbers been sliding? The mainstream media will tell you it is because of his foolish political gamble. He headed back to Washington and looked bad doing so. I don't think that's it at all, though I agree he did not look good. This argument assumes that average voters poured over every word of press reports (written by mainstream media people!) and carefully meditated upon every keenly insightful utterance on the Sunday talk shows (dominated by the chatter of mainstream media people!) to tease out who made the politically smart move. I don't buy that (self-serving!) explanation for a minute. [N.B. Ever notice how MSM political analysis always seem to place the MSM in the center of the battle?]

I think McCain has suffered a deterioration in his poll position for a simple reason: he's the Republican. George W. Bush is the President of the United States. He is responsible for the state of the nation. He's not held in good esteem right now, and he's a Republican. From a public opinion perspective, it does not matter so much that the Democrats control Congress. The buck stops with Bush; Bush is a Republican; McCain is a Republican; McCain suffers.

A related factor could be that Bush is simply more noticeable than he was a few weeks ago. The President has done a good job hiding himself during the presidential campaign. Presumably, he knows that his presence hurts McCain, so he's taken himself out of the public's view. But now he's back on the television, on the front pages, giving prime time speeches, and so on. I think this has hurt McCain's numbers as much as anything.

Here's a thought experiment to mull. Take 100 undecided voters and expose them to an hour of clips of George W. Bush talking. How many of them will lean Obama at the end of the hour? More than half, I'm guessing, which is why McCain needs this issue, and George W. Bush, off the front pages as soon as possible. McCain's trajectory to victory has always relied upon Bush falling out of public view. Up until this crisis, Bush seemed happy to oblige the Republican nominee. But this has put Bush front-and-center, which inherently helps Barack Obama.

-Jay Cost