November 7, 2012

Moderation from Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District Means Little

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(Interactive Map by Emily Hoerner)
Iowa Rep. Tom Latham may have seized victory over former incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell in a new district with a majority of Democrats, but his moderate reputation disguises his conservative legislative voting record.

Iowa’s new 3rd District sprawls from Des Moines, west to Council Bluffs. In 2008 Polk County voted 56.4 percent for Democratic President Barack Obama, while the areas like Adair, Madison, and Pottawattamie all went to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The race ended up 54.3 percent Latham, and 45.7 percent Boswell, a result of the diverse district. And both incumbents were widely considered moderate members of their respective parties.

Rep. Tom Latham, R-IowaRep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa

Boswell is the 20th most moderate Democrat in the 112th House of Representatives out of 194 party members, according to data gathered by political science professors Keith Poole from the University of Georgia, Howard Rosenthal from New York University and Jeff Lewis from UCLA. Their data also showed that out of 242 Republicans, Latham is ranked the 45th most moderate. There are no Democrats who are more conservative than any Republicans, and no Republicans who are more liberal than any Democrats.

In relative terms, both incumbents are moderate in comparison to the rest of their party. However, in practice their voting records show that neither act like members willing to work across the aisle.

Both campaigns didn’t return calls to IowaWatch.

According to The Washington Post’s U.S. Congressional votes database, Boswell voted with the Democratic party 83 percent of the time,1 while Latham voted with the Republican party 90 percent2 of the time.

Largely because of such party-line voting, experts say in today’s political climate, moderate members of the House are moderates in name only.

Sam Abrams, co-author of “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” said the definition of a moderate has changed in the past 35 to 40 years.

“Even if you have someone who gets elected in a moderate district, it is very hard to exist and play that role in Congress,” he said. “The party doesn’t support you.”

Abrams said in Washington, even when a candidate’s personal disposition may be moderate, it is very difficult act that way because to be successful and to get chair positions, you need to work with a party.

“All congressmen need to make sure they get reelected. If not, nothing else can be done,” he said. “If that is the first goal, there is a certain end game you have to play.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a Romney rally in Dubuque. (Photo by Emily Hoerner)Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, at a Romney rally in Dubuque. (Photo by Emily Hoerner)

Mark Hansen, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, said there are incentives, even among people who represent the same district, to conform to the parties wishes in Washington.

For example, Hansen said, take Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. Harkin is no conservative Democrat, while Grassley is no middle-of-the-road member either, he said.

“You would never mistake them for each other, even though they represent the same constituency,” Hansen said.

Which is why Latham and Boswell vote along party lines most of the time. On important legislation, both typically voted with their party.

Latham voted to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, to stop federal funding of National Public Radio, and against the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles budget plan.

And although Boswell strayed across party lines and voted with Republicans on a measure to jump-start the proposed oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast, he voted for Iraq troop reduction, and to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” along with most Democrats.


To see the full list of votes compiled by The Washington Post, click here for Latham/Boswell.


Bruce Cain, an expert on congressional redistricting from the University of California, Berkeley, said in an email that money, party activist pressure, and national conditions — like the realignment of parties over the civil rights movement — creates higher partisanship in Congress.

“Over time the party distributions…have separated so that a more moderate member in 2012 is less moderate than his or her counterpart 20 years ago,” Cain said.

And voting along party lines might be just what a congressional member’s voters asked for.

Listen:Crisis and Compromise

Gary Jacobson, an expert on congressional elections at the University of California, San Diego, said that representatives are pressured by the parties once they arrive in Congress, and generally acclimate with their wishes.

“They tend to match pretty well with voters,” he said. “Members represent their electoral constituencies.”

That constituency refers to the majority, no matter how small, of the near-33 percent of registered voters who cast ballots in non-presidential election years, Jacobson said. And that is because they worry about the primary constituencies, who tend to be stronger ideologically.

Leonard BoswellRep. Leonard Boswell, D-Iowa.

But even though Boswell and Latham often side with their respective parties when voting on legislation, Jacobson said the idea of being a “moderate” isn’t irrelevant.

“A lot of what goes on in Congress happens in committees and subcommittees,” Jacobson said. “It is an area where they can moderate.”

Boswell is a ranking member of the agriculture committee of the general farm commodities and risk management, as well as a member of the transportation and infrastructure committee.

Latham is on the appropriations committee for agriculture, homeland security, and the transportation chair of housing and urban development.

Allowing for Moderation

The idea that both incumbents are moderate members may come from the type of district they represent. And although both Latham and Boswell were vying for the newly drawn 3rd Congressional District, their previous areas were most likely pretty moderate as a whole, Hansen said.

The general trend in districts is toward homogeneity, according to Matthew Gunning, a political scientist from Georgia Gwinnett College who studies redistricting.

“We tend to live by people who are like us,” he said.

Gunning said since the 1976 election between candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, elections have gotten less competitive. During that election many of the states garnered close races between the candidates. Now, he said, only about ten states are a toss up.

“You’ve got a bunch of states now that aren’t very competitive,” Gunning said. “But at the same time the nation is pretty divided.”

Even in Iowa, with a nonpartisan redistricting system, some areas are very homogenous.

Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said the former 5th Congressional District Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has a very Republican constituency.

“King’s conservatism is a result of his district,” he said. At the same time, Boswell and Latham have more diverse districts, which are advertisements of the benefits of nonpartisan redistricting, Covington said.

“[That] validates the intended effects of nonpartisan redistricting,” he said.

However, Covington noted, the general consensus among political scientists is that partisan redistricting does not polarize the House.

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