Skip to main content
Menu
Why Some Democrats Attended Netanyahu’s Speech And Some Didn’t

To attend or not attend? That has been the question dogging congressional Democrats in the runup to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on Tuesday. The majority of Democrats attended the address. Official information on who attended is still coming in, but so far I have data for 201 Democratic senators and representatives who also have DW-Nominate idealogical scores. Of those, 30 percent stayed away. So why did some go and others bail?

Interestingly, the variables that were most meaningful in predicting who attended were those attached to the politician, rather than to his or her district or state. The one exception was the percentage of Jewish-Americans in a member’s district or state. We can see this through a logit regression in which we try to predict who attended.1

The most liberal House members and senators were the most likely to stay away. According to DW-Nominate scores, which measure ideology based on a member of Congress’s roll call votes, the average member who attended the speech was only in the 36th percentile for liberalness among congressional Democrats. The average Democrat who did not attend, by contrast, was more liberal than 72 percent of congressional Democrats. While many of the more liberal members of Congress are from more Democratic leaning districts, the explanatory power of how a district voted in the past two presidential elections is muted once we control for a member’s DW-Nominate score. For example, the very liberal Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts did not attend even though his district is actually more Republican leaning than that of the average Democrat who attended.

Interestingly, being a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) or being from a heavily African-American district didn’t have a great effect. Yes, members from districts in which African-Americans make up a large percentage of the population and members of the CBC, one of Obama’s strongest bases of support in Congress, were more likely to boycott the speech, but many of these members are also very liberal. More moderate CBC members from heavily African-American districts, such as Rep. Sanford Bishop of Georgia and Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, attended.

Indeed, the fact that those most friendly to Obama sat out the speech can best be seen through Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who is neither liberal nor black and still did not attend the speech. Kaine was an early backer of Obama, endorsing him over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. Kaine was nearly Obama’s choice for vice president, and Obama appointed Kaine as Democratic National Committee chairman in 2009.

Senators and representatives were more likely to attend the speech if they were from highly Jewish districts or states — it was the one clear area where the demographics of a district or state affected a senator or representative’s decision on whether to attend. The average Democratic member of Congress who attended the speech was from a state or district that was 4 percent Jewish, compared with only 2 percent for those who stayed away. Jewish-Americans don’t all feel the same way about U.S. relations with Israel, but the Pew Research Center found in 2013 that 69 percent of Jewish-Americans are at least somewhat emotionally attached to Israel. Reps. Hakeem Jeffries of New York (a CBC member), Jerry Nadler of New York and Nancy Pelosi of California are all big liberals from districts where at least 8 percent of the population is Jewish-American. They all attended.

While more Jewish representatives and senators attended than not, this effect was nonexistent once we controlled for the aforementioned variables. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois — all liberal and all Jewish — all backed the administration by not attending.

Overall, the Democratic Party is more split on Israel than the Republican Party. Yet, when forced to choose, the majority of Democrats attended the speech.

UPDATE (March 3, 5:45 p.m.): I tracked down data for a few more Democrats and updated numbers throughout the article.

Footnotes

  1. There are many variables at play in the politics surrounding the Netanyahu speech, but the ones I used in the model correctly classified 77 percent of Democratic decisions on attending.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Comments