Opportunism in Polarization: Presidential Success in Senate Key Votes, 1953-2008


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We greatly appreciate thoughtful, helpful comments from Jon Bond, Brandice Canes-Wrone, Gary Cox, Richard Fleisher, Bernard Grofman, Mathew McCubbins, Anthony McGann, and an anonymous reviewer. We thank all of them. Also, UC Irvine and UCI's Center for the Study of Democracy generously supported this project.

Matthew N. Beckmann is an associate professor of political science at the University of California Irvine. He is the author of Pushing the Agenda: Presidential Leadership in US Lawmaking, 1953-2004 and coauthor of How Presidents Push, When Presidents Win.
Vimal Kumar is an assistant professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, India. His main research interests are new institutional economics, political economics, and game theoretic modeling of decision-making processes.


That Congress has experienced increased polarization is clear, and burgeoning is the literature investigating its causes and consequences. Here we examine a counterintuitive wrinkle on the latter. Drawing from a simple game-theoretic model in which a president strategically allocates scarce “political capital” to induce changes in legislators' votes, we show congressional polarization can actually improve a president's prospects for winning key roll-call votes—a hypothesis that emerges inasmuch as polarization enables presidents to concentrate their resources lobbying fewer members (compared to a more homogenous chamber). We test this hypothesis by investigating presidents' success on Congressional Quarterly's “key” Senate roll-call votes, 1953-2008.