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Evans' book wins distinguished honor named after his mentor

  • Book award
    Book award  C. Lawrence Evans, the Newton Family Professor of Government at William & Mary (left) recently accepted the Richard F. Fenno, Jr. Prize from Sarah Binder at the American Political Science Association annual meetings.  Photo courtesy of C. Lawrence Evans
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When compiling and analyzing data for his award-winning book, “The Whips: Building Party Coalitions in Congress,” C. Lawrence Evans used many of the same exhaustive techniques his mentor Richard Fenno taught him during his time as a doctoral student at the University of Rochester. 

He didn’t do it alone, however. Evans, the Newton Family Professor of Government at William & Mary, had the invaluable support of the university and the help of 39 W&M students who pored over materials and coded data over a lengthy period of time. 

The result is a work considered the best in its class by the American Political Science Association. 

Evans’ book was awarded the Richard F. Fenno Jr. Prize by the APSA in September for the best book published the previous year about legislatures, foreign and domestic. That the award is named after his mentor makes it extra special for Evans. 

“That’s huge for me, a big deal personally,” Evans said. “Dick Fenno was the leading scholar of Congress since World War II. 

“He also taught me a lot about how to interact with members of Congress, how to interview them and the importance of the pick and shovel effort that goes into good scholarship. His work was exhaustive and involved a whole lot of data gathering.” 

In “The Whips,” Evans examines party whips in the U.S. legislative system, what they do and why they matter so much. 

This required extensive research, including the examination of nearly 30,000 pages of archived materials. These records allowed Evans and his team to create a database of nearly 1,500 internal leadership polls on significant bills over five decades. 

Throughout his career, Evans’ research has largely been qualitative and observational. “The Whips” required a much more data-driven approach. In search of internal records of the whip process, Evans and W&M students visited research libraries all over the country to photocopy the documents and bring their findings back to Williamsburg. 

The data-driven research for “The Whips” was a departure from what Evans was used to, and it took a substantial amount of time, 15 years to be exact. The support of William & Mary and its student body was critical in helping him complete the project. 

The Newton Family Endowment provided Evans with resources to travel and bring students into the project, and the Charles Center supported the enterprise in many ways. 

“I was able to work with undergraduates over an extended period, gathering evidence, coding data, doing analysis, coauthoring papers, going to conferences,” Evans said. “And that was in part made possible by outside funding, but also all kinds of institutional support from the College.” 

Evans lists the names of his undergraduate assistants in the appendix of “The Whips.” Among those recognized is Josh Litten ’09, who is now a publication specialist in the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

“We met with many current and former staffers and congressional scholars who walked us through the process of whipping a caucus,” Litten said. “Of course, being able to examine the actual primary sources was a huge positive and provided insight into the methods of members of Congress pushing legislative agendas. Perhaps even more interesting were notes made in the margins—some by whips in response to certain members’ responses, some noting possible pressure points that could compel a leaning member to flip, and some purely and amusingly petty. Congress is, after all, a very human institution.” 

After Evans and his team devised a way to collect and code the substantial data, he was tasked with evaluating what it all meant. 

“What the evidence demonstrated was there is a remarkable fluidity on the House and Senate floor,” Evans said. “And so for me, the challenge was to think about decision making in a new way that emphasizes the fluidity of the process, as opposed to the centrality of fixed preferences, which is more typical in my field.” 

Based on reaction from his peers, Evans succeeded at the task. The APSA awarded him a plaque that now hangs on the wall in his Tyler Hall office. 

“It’s sort of like the Stanley Cup,” Evans joked, comparing his award to the large silver trophy awarded every year to the National Hockey League champion. “When you win it, you get to keep it for a year in your office, and then it’s passed on to your successor.” 

Evans’ name is on the award, but he credits the William & Mary community for helping him complete the project. 

“In many ways, the book itself is a William & Mary product,” Evans said. “I could not have written it anyplace else.”