Menus Subscribe Search

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

August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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