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Why Representatives Voted Against the Bailout — and a Suggestion on How to Change Their Minds—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on October 1, 2008.

Why Representatives Voted Against the Bailout — and a Suggestion on How to Change Their Minds
By Ian Ayres ’86

There have already been a number of good newspaper articles providing descriptive statistics that members with at-risk seats are more likely to vote against the House bill on Monday. Of the 19 most vulnerable house members, 13 voted against the bill. A Washington Post blog said, “The list of the 228 nays reads like a virtual target list for the two parties.”

Congressional Quarterly provides these charts making the same point:

Alice Shih and I ran a simple (logistic) regression which confirms this result. We found that at-risk candidates were 16 percent more likely to vote against the bill than safer seats (and that Republicans were 33 percent more likely to vote “no” than Democrats).

But there were a few surprises. After we controlled for the foreclosure rate and the other variables, black representatives were 18 percent more likely to vote against the bill than white representatives. Representatives who were not running for re-election were 60 percent more likely to vote in favor of the bill.

This seems like further evidence that representatives freed from the constraints of being re-elected were more likely to follow their party leaders and support the bill. All of these results are statistically significant (p. < .05).

We also found that representatives in states with higher foreclosure rates were estimated to be more likely to vote against the bill, but we were a bit surprised that this result was not even close to being statistically significant. The median voter in the polls doesn’t seem to support the bill, but the level of disapproval doesn’t seem to be statistically related to the local level of foreclosure.

Here is the raw output from the regression:

(At-risk data are taken from Cook Political Report. State foreclosure rate data are taken from RealtyTrac.)

So as we quickly move toward another House vote, how can McCain or Obama turn some of these nays to yeas?

It’s hard to offer a representative who’s fighting for his or her political life an incentive to flip-flop — especially when “challengers and open-seat candidates were the quickest to denounce the package.”

At the end of the day, it may be necessary to get the at-risk incumbents and their challengers to agree to take this issue off the table. If McCain and Obama jointly reached out to both sides in these close races, it might be possible for both contenders for a House seat to simultaneously agree to support the package. This will not be easy. Adversaries in tight races are loathe to cooperate when there is political advantage to be had in clinging to the popular position. But the alternative is to ask some incumbent members to engage in probabilistic political suicide.