Monday, December 15, 2008

Does It Matter Where a Senator Comes From???

Before all of the shenanigans in the Illinois Senate seat appointment emerged, there was an underlying discussion about the ability of whoever was appointed to win "statewide." With the assumption that the designee would hail from Chicago, attention immediately turned to the fact that whoever was chosen would have to run two years later for a full term. An even more daunting schedule awaits Hillary Clinton's successor as the new Senator will have to run first in 2010 for the right to fill out the term, and then in 2012 for a full 6 years.

Given that the designee will not initially gain their seat via the will of the people, there is uncertainty as to how palatable they will be to the electorate once they are on the ballot. More ethically minded governors than Rod Blagojevich need to speculate about how the new Senator will fare across a state's myriad voting groups. In the case of Illinois, should the designee come from Chicago they begin, potentially, with a large voting bloc ready to support them (or that is at least familiar to them). This would especially be the case for appointees already holding some elected office--House members, mayors, state senators, etc. Once in office, however, they will need to broaden their appeal to voters across the rest of the state.

Complicating this, sometimes, is the fact that voters "out-state" tend to receive coolly politicians from the "big city." These candidates might be perceived as arrogant, unconcerned with the needs of people from small towns or rural areas, or too ensconced in the ways of the state's dominant metropolis. Thus, "out state" voters might react against them in favor of someone more familiar. Central to Richard Fenno's theory of "home style" is the need for voters to identify with candidates in order to trust them. This tension between the big city and "out-state" has manifest itself in my home state of Wisconsin where a governor who hailed from Milwaukee hasn't been elected since the late 1920s despite the fact that the Milwaukee metropolitan area accounts for roughly 30% of the state's population. While Chicago clearly dominates Illinois' economy and is by far the population center, there is no guarantee that a Senator from there will automatically win. This question got me wondering, then, about how common it is for Senators to come from their state's largest city or metropolitan area. Is it truly an advantage or might "out state" Senators be more attractive. Thus, I decided to look at the current Senate (minus Obama) to see if one type of candidate is more prevalent.

In answering this question I would note that there are numerous caveats to raise. Many many factors, aside from residence, account for why candidates win Senate seats. Among these are their previous experience (elected offices, private sector work, etc.), the underlying partisanship of the state, the quality of their challenger, whether they are an incumbent or seeking their first term, fundraising prowess, and the political climate in which their campaign takes place. Also, we can't automatically assume that the candidate will automatically win these big city voters in a proportion greater than the norm. Further worth noting is that some states have many population centers, thus creating numerous "big city" vs. "out state" dynamics. California comes immediately to mind with L.A., San Francisco, and San Diego acting as population meccas; Texas and Florida might also be cited. Thus, this analysis, and any conclusions we might draw, will be crude at best. Nonetheless, what do we see.

Above I've produced a simple spreadsheet that shows each state's two Senators followed by the state's largest city and metropolitan area. I included both city and metro areas because of the possibility that the suburban spread of one city might make it larger than that of the state's largest city proper. Because metro areas share common media a candidate might be able to take advantage of this to attract a large voter base. I also included metro areas because in some states the largest metro area is in fact a cluster of suburbs to a city in a neighboring state--New Jersey being the obvious example here. Next I've listed both the residence and city of birth for the Senator. While we see that many Senators reside in the same places in which they were born, Senators will also try to identify both their residence's and birthplace's voters as their own. Should there be a match between either the Senator's residence or birthplace and either the state's largest city or metro area, I've highlighted the correlation.

As a bit of trivia, I'd note that Brooklyn seems to be a great place to be born if you aspire to represent a state other than New York in the Senate, as Barbara Boxer (CA), Bernie Sanders (VT), and Norm Coleman (MN) all hail from there.

Overall, we see that for just barely a majority of Senate seats--52--does the incumbent Senator come from their state's population center. Thus, there doesn't seem to be, on its face, much of an advantage from coming from the area with the most votes. Candidates seem to be able to emerge from a variety of places within a state--some from big cities, some from tiny hamlets. One thing that might be worth exploring--which I didn't calculate--is whether the size of the biggest city vis a vis the rest of the state--matters. If the biggest city in a state is comparatively small the advantage accrued by winning those votes is less that if the state's biggest city is proportionally much larger.

I'd be happy to entertain any other theories or observations that anyone has about how meaningful the "big city" vs. "out-state" dynamic is.

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