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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.

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