Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


What Makes Us Politic

arizona-capitol

The Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. (Photo: Sue Stokes/Shutterstock)

Understanding a Politician’s Motives: Why Did Jan Brewer Veto SB 1062 in Arizona?

• March 03, 2014 • 12:00 PM

The Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix. (Photo: Sue Stokes/Shutterstock)

A politician’s true ideological position, however unknowable that may be for an outsider, is an important consideration when attempting to determine motive. But it’s not the only consideration.

Last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, which would have permitted business owners in Arizona to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples on the basis of religious belief. The Internet lost no time in trying to parse Brewer’s motives for the veto.

For some, it was a simple economic motivation: Brewer was worried the law would have caused tourists to go elsewhere or the NFL to move the next Super Bowl to another state. To others, she was sensibly rejecting an overly vague and likely unconstitutional bill, avoiding unnecessary legal complications for her state. Still others saw her as bowing to pressure from national Republican leaders concerned about their party’s brand name. For yet others, this veto was a statement of Brewer’s own true ideological preferences, which don’t necessarily line up with those of other Republicans in her state.

Of course a politician’s actions are motivated by politics. Indeed, we want our politicians to be motivated by politics.

What’s the true motive for her veto? It doesn’t matter. More importantly, we’ll never know, because there is never one true motive for any political decision.

This is an issue for political scientists who study legislatures, particularly Congress. Many of these researchers rely upon estimates of elected officials’ “ideal points,” or ideological positions, which are drawn from those members’ roll call votes. We rely upon these measures to study things like party polarization and representation. The assumption made in calculating them, though, is that how an elected official votes is, on average, a good indicator of what she believes.

This assumption has been scrutinized in several studies. Some note that Congress, like virtually all legislatures, employs some aspect of agenda control. That is, not every bill that every member cares about reaches the floor for a vote. The minority party, for one, often has a hard time getting its bills to a full vote, and majorities are often good at sidelining bills they think would be embarrassing for their party. So it’s certainly possible that we’re getting a biased view of members’ ideologies by focusing just on those bills that made it to the floor. But the general consensus is that this isn’t a huge problem.

But what’s important to recognize is that many things inform a legislator’s vote or a governor’s (or president’s) veto. The politician’s true ideological position, however unknowable that may be for an outsider, is an important consideration. But legislators do not always vote their true preferences. Sometimes, they’ll swap votes with another legislator in a log roll on issues they both care about. Sometimes they’ll vote against their own wishes to avoid antagonizing voters or powerful interest groups in their districts. Sometimes they’ll vote how their party leaders ask them to in order to help their party more broadly. There’s even evidence that they’ll sometimes vote how the legislator sitting next to them voted, just because. There are almost always multiple influences operating on politicians at any given time.

One of the silliest criticisms of a politician’s vote or veto, though, is that they were motivated by politics. Of course a politician’s actions are motivated by politics. Indeed, we want our politicians to be motivated by politics. That means they’re concerned about things like representing voters and not embarrassing their party or their government. That’s part of representative democracy. It’s the politicians who aren’t motivated by politics who are potentially dangerous. Luckily, they tend not to have long careers.

So, what motivated Brewer’s veto: personal beliefs, business concerns, legal concerns, or political calculation? Yes.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


November 20 • 8:00 AM

Surviving the Secret Childhood Trauma of a Parent’s Drug Addiction

As a young girl, Alana Levinson struggled with the shame of her father’s substance abuse. But when she looked more deeply into the research on children of drug-addicted parents, she realized society’s “conspiracy of silence” was keeping her—and possibly millions of others—from adequately dealing with the experience.



November 20 • 6:00 AM

Extreme Weather, Caused by Climate Change, Is Here. Can Nike Prepare You?

Following the approach we often see from companies marketing products before big storms, Nike focuses on climate change science in the promotion of its latest line of base-layer apparel. Is it a sign that more Americans are taking climate change seriously? Don’t get your hopes up.


November 20 • 5:00 AM

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn’t vanish as we age—it just moves.


November 20 • 4:00 AM

The FBI’s Dangerous Misrepresentation of Encryption Law

The FBI no more deserves a direct line to your data than it deserves to intercept your mail at the post office. But it doesn’t want you to know that.


November 20 • 2:00 AM

Brain Drain Is Economic Development

It may be hard to see unless you shift your focus from places to people, but both destination and source can benefit from “brain drain.”


November 19 • 9:00 PM

Gays Rights Are Great, but Ixnay on the PDAs

New research suggests both heterosexuals and gay men are uncomfortable with public same-sex kissing.


November 19 • 4:00 PM

The Red Cross’ Own Employees Doubt the Charity’s Ethics

Survey results obtained by ProPublica also show a crisis of trust in the charity’s senior leadership.



Follow us


Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

Online Brain Exercises Are Probably Useless

Even under the guidance of a specialist trainer, computer-based brain exercises have only modest benefits, a new analysis shows.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.