How to Get a Legislator to Yes

President Nixon shaking Elvis' hand in the Oval Office.
Two party animals. Credit: National Archives.

Most politicians are party animals. By which I mean they are - or at least believe themselves to be - somewhat beholden to the priorities of their political party. (Though a certain Senate Majority Leader from New York is also known to enjoy a good dance party.)

The party probably put up some cash to get them elected. And it's easy enough for legislators to see their fates tangled up with the fate of their party.

Party, it should be noted, doesn't necessarily mean the formal state entities - say the Montana Democratic Party or the Massachusetts GOP. Or the formal national entities, the Democratic National Committee or Republican National Committee. Though all those entities help bankroll campaigns.

Party here more means the leadership of the party in a member's legislature: Senate President, Speaker of the House, Majority Leader, Minority Leader, Mayor (in some major cities), and so on. These big bosses set the party's agenda, make Committee assignments, and fundraise for legislators. It can be useful to be in their good graces.

Interesting aside: Purple district members may have a wider berth with party leadership (think Democratic Senator Joe Manchin from largely Republican West Virginia, ditto Senator Jon Tester from Montana).

Winning in a district that could go either way is a heckuva feat that not just any average Joe can pull off (though a Joe - and a Jon - did). There's a sense that those members know best how to represent their district, what kind of votes their constituents will stomach, how far they can push those limits.

Smart party leaders get that those members can't (or won't) always vote the party line, but will be a reliable enough vote that it's worth protecting them to keep the seat.

When we're making an ask of our legislator, having an idea of where their party leadership stands (or has historically stood) on our issue is a useful data point. Though there will be plenty of votes where plenty of members break from their party for plenty of reasons.

But there are some other details hidden in plain sight that can nudge legislators in one direction or another (and might be easier to access than the inner workings of a party leader's mind). The more we understand these details, the more power we have to shape an ask our member can say yes to.

So throw a log on the fire, pour yourself a mug of something warm, and let's start digging around here.

District Landscape
District Demographics: Is your district red, blue or purple? Mostly 55+? Largely urban? Bottom line here: how would your issue play with the bulk of the legislator's voting base?

If I'm pushing lower prescription drug prices, that could go over swimmingly with an older constituency. If I'm pushing public transit in a mostly rural district, that might require a more elegant argument.

Major Industries in the District: Say the legislator represents a shipyard or airport, big tech company, hospital, university, nuclear power or meatpacking plant. Sizable employers (with deep pockets) can factor into the member's voting calculus on relevant bills.

This doesn't at all mean big industries alway have legislators in their pocket. Congressman Ro Khanna represents part of Silicon Valley and isn't uniformly opposed to regulating big tech.

And sometimes, there's firepower on both sides of an issue. Here in Maine, there's a bill to require minimum nurse staffing at hospitals. The nurse's union is a big fan, hospital lobbyists want to torpedo it. The more aware we are of the different factions on our issue and the more we understand the political crosswinds the legislator is in, the more we can craft an ask that takes those into consideration.

Party/Legislature Landscape
The Size of the Majority or Loyal Opposition: The slimmer the majority, the more empowered each individual member (Exhibit A: Senator Joe Manchin) regardless of seniority (Exhibit B: Representative Matt Gaetz - some salty language in that article).

It's worth noting, though, that some party leadership can still maintain tight discipline with a tiny majority (Exhibit C: former Speaker Nancy Pelosi).

Conversely, if our legislator is in the minority, there's usually strong pressure for the party to be a united front – unless voting out of step behoves a legislator's re-elect.

Term Limits: 16 state legislatures have term limits (and mine's one of'em - maybe yours is, too!). If a legislator is termed out (meaning they can't run again), they may be more footloose and fancy free to vote as the spirit moves them. Unless they're thinking of running for a different office (governor, Senator, state Attorney General), in which case they probably aren't looking to burn the bridges.

Member's Background
Legislatures from town halls on up to Congress love seniority. The more years served, the more muscles a legislator has to flex. If we've got ourselves a first-term politician, they've likely got less wiggle room than a legislator who's logged 20 years in office.

Committees They Sit On: If we've got a bill that goes through our legislator's Committee, not only will they vote on it, but they may be able to sway other members to vote a certain way, too.

Voting History on Your Issue: The most concrete way to see where a legislator stands on an issue is how they've voted on it in the past. For our federal legislators, sniff around to get their voting history.

State legislature and town council votes might require some real gumshoe sleuthing since their websites can be a little clunky. Also worth checking if any local news outlets have stories about past votes.

Personal History: My boss in Congress was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and if you wanted to plus up Peace Corps funding, he was your guy. If your legislator is a former (or current) teacher, traffic engineer, butcher, baker, or candlestick maker, that could well inform where they stand on particular issues.

If this is starting to sound like we need to write a 5th grade term paper on our member, not to worry. Much of this info we probably already have a rough handle on (like our district politics and some big businesses in it). Most of the rest of it is in our legislator's bio (seniority, Committee appointments, personal history).

The trickier stuff is voting records, but with a little elbow grease and a strong cup of coffee, I bet you can figure it out. Which means you can check voting records again on other issues.

Members are often making mental calculuses ("I'll pinch my nose for this vote to make this constituency happy because they're not going to like how I'll vote for this other bill coming down the pike that leadership needs me for"). We can't read their minds, but we can read their districts, bios, political landscape.

The more we fashion an ask that signals we understand their reality and the more respectful and kind we are in making that ask, the more likely legislators are to trust us. That doesn't guarantee a yes. But if they give us a no, the door will still be open for us to come knocking in the future. And possibly with a legislator inside more willing to say yes, since they didn't before.

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