Republicans' favorite attack on incumbent Democrats: their loyalty to Obama in votes

Conservative political action committee Americans for Prosperity released 14 identical videos attacking Democrats for how often their votes in Congress lined up with President Barack Obama.
Conservative political action committee Americans for Prosperity released 14 identical videos attacking Democrats for how often their votes in Congress lined up with President Barack Obama.

In countless races this election season, the favorite Republican talking point against Democratic incumbents is how often they voted with President Barack Obama.

The Republican Party of Virginia said Sen. Mark Warner voted with Obama 97 percent of the time, and we rated that True. Republican Scott Brown said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s voted with him 99 percent of the time: Mostly True. In Arkansas, Rep. Tom Cotton said Sen. Mark Pryor voted with him 93 percent of the time. That got a Mostly True.

Here’s more evidence of just how popular it is: Last week, conservative political action committee Americans for Prosperity released 14 videos attacking 14 Democrat candidates for the House and Senate -- all of them are identical, adjusted for the candidate’s name and specific presidential support voting record.

Of the 16 Senate races with a Democrat incumbent running for another term, we found that at least 10 Republican challengers have wielded the claim against their opponent.

"That someone votes with Obama -- that's all someone needs to hear," said Leonard Steinhorn, an expert in political communication at American University and a former speechwriter. "That association between Obama and the candidate is enough to rally the base."

Those numbers show more than Democratic loyalty to the president, though. They’re indicative of the increasing partisan divide in Congress. An analysis of congressional votes shows historically low presidential support from the opposition party -- and record-high presidential support in his own party. These voting patterns have nuances that get lost in campaign soundbites.

Where do the numbers come from?

Presidents don’t cast votes in Congress, so it’s not possible to do a true vote comparison. But Republicans don’t pull these statistics out of a hat, either.

The statistics come from CQ Roll Call, which tracks congressional data. Since 1953, when Dwight D. Eisenhower became president, CQ has calculated presidential support from congressional votes.

In its vote studies, CQ editors select votes to track based on clear statements the president or his spokespersons make on particular votes. Members’ scores reflect how often they vote in agreement with the president’s position.

The analyzed votes, though, are only a fraction of all votes that Congress takes. Last year, Obama only took a position on 20.8 percent of all congressional votes, nearly a 20-year high.

This figure from CQ shows how often the president makes a statement on votes:

cq 1.png

Presidents will primarily comment on the most important votes and rarely the minor ones, said Sarah Binder, an expert on Congress and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. When Obama has expressed an opinion on a vote, he’s tended to get the support of his party.

"Even accounting for the selectivity of the presidential position taking, those measures are not bad proxies of incumbent Democrats' alignment with the president," she said.

The rise in the talking point’s popularity coincides with Senate Democrats voting with Obama 96 percent of the time in 2013, which is the "highest level of support given to the commander in chief from either party in at least six decades," according to CQ.

The next-highest was Senate Republicans’ support for Bush in 2001 and 2003, at 94 percent.

Looking at it from another angle, House Republicans supported the president in just 12 percent of votes in 2013. In terms of low support, this is second only to House Democrats’ 7 percent support for Bush in 2007.

Compare this to the 1960s -- before Congress started on a path of increasing polarization. Senate Democrats at one pointed voted for Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s policies only 60 percent of the time, while Senate Republicans voted for them about 50 percent of the time.

These days, the parties are tightly controlled, so the members typically vote in lockstep, Steinhorn said. Some legislation is designed solely for political purposes -- such as creating an omnibus bill with many, many facets that will inevitably fail. Then, come election time, someone can say their opponent voted against something like disaster funding, when really it was bundled up in a doomed omnibus bill.

Another tactic is to cherry-pick an opponent’s voting record for only the years when alignment was high. That’s what happened when National Republican Congressional Committee said Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., voted with Obama 85 percent of the time. PolitiFact rated that Mostly False. The number was 85 percent in 2009, but much lower in other years, bottoming out most recently at 28 percent and 35 percent.

Binder said legislative scholars view Congress members’ voting choices as position-taking influenced by a variety of factors -- including constituencies, ideology, electoral concerns and partisan concerns.

For example, congressional leaders might impose partisan pressure by setting an agenda that doesn’t allow the other party’s legislation to make it to the floor for a vote. Binder said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has "mastered" this kind of manipulation, preventing Republican measures from coming to a vote.

Now that elections are near, Republicans are using  Democratic unity on congressional votes to their advantage, especially considering Obama’s relatively low approval ratings -- 40 percent as of the latest Gallup poll.

Obama’s particularly low numbers among Republicans can help rally base voters, while undecided voters may be swayed as well, said Benjamin Bates, an expert in political messaging at Ohio University.

"If you can make a voter think that a congressperson or senator votes in lockstep with the president, all of the negative feelings a voter might have toward the president might be transferred to the candidate," Bates said.

Attacks against Republicans for consistently voting with their party wouldn’t work as well for Democrats in this cycle because voters might not see this as a negative, Bates said.

"Republicans are already perceived as voting in lockstep by many voters," Bates said. "Republican voters would probably see an attack ad that a candidate was voting too often with Republicans as a strength and not a criticism."

Bates added that while Republicans have Obama, Democrats don’t have a major, polarizing Republican figure to whom they can compare candidates’ records.

When a party holds the presidency, they hold political power. But when the president is unpopular, it gives the opposing party a talking point to run on.

The shoe was on the other foot, for example, before Obama took office.

Back in the 2008 presidential election, when Bush was unpopular across the electorate, Democrats were able to use a similar tie to Bush in their favor. As a candidate, Obama said his opponent Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., voted with Bush 90 percent of the time. We rated that True.