Interesting numbers on Obama, Clinton, McCain, and Bush

Keith Poole is a major figure among political scientists, having gathered data on every significant congressional vote since time immemorial and analyzed those voting patterns. I just realized that he has put a ton of data and analysis online. It's fasacinating stuff. Here are his data on polarization (note that party polarization is at its highest level since reconstruction). Here is his paper finding that gerrymandering does not cause polarization, and here is his paper finding that members of Congress adopt a consistent ideological position and maintain it over time.

But what spurred me to write this post are his data on the ideological mapping of Obama, Clinton, McCain, and Bush. The analysis shows very little distance between Obama and Clinton (both slightly to the left of the middle of their party), but what's really interesting to me is the gap between Bush and McCain, and in particular how far to the right Bush is. Also interesting is how McCain's voting party moved him to the left of his party as the parties became more polarized. Of course, a single left-right axis flattens out a fair amount of complexity, but they also have two-axis measures that capture more, and in any event their data still capture a fair amount. (If you want more on the reliability, validity, and signficance of Poole's data, there's tons on that. His numbers have been used for so long, by so many political scientists, that just about every aspect of them has been considered exhaustively.)

KWC (mail):
Cool! If only he could make it so each time you hit refresh it updates McCain's positions. But I guess that would require 24-hour work that no one's willing to do.
8.25.2008 10:01pm
Cornellian (mail):
I think having an X-Y axis for mapping both social and economic freedoms would be far more informative than a spectrum. I want to see who's in favor of both and who's in favor of neither and instead I get "conservatives" and "liberals" both of whom favor one type of freedom but not the other.
8.25.2008 10:19pm
This proves my contention that Obama is the most liberally, leftist, lefty, leftist in the Senate. Wait a second...

Thanks for the post. This is interesting information and I'm a sucker for data viz.

KWC - you'd be amazed at what's possible on the Internets.
8.25.2008 10:29pm
So George Bush is as far from the center as Paul Wellstone, a socialist, and farther from the center as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama??????
8.25.2008 10:31pm
Anderson (mail):
The analysis shows very little distance between Obama and Clinton (both slightly to the left of the middle of their party

Well, that can't be right, because Prof. Somin says Obama is a far-left liberal.
8.25.2008 10:37pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
The analysis shows very little distance between Obama and Clinton (both slightly to the left of the middle of their party

Well, that can't be right, because Prof. Somin says Obama is a far-left liberal.
Are you implying that these are necessarily contradictory?
8.25.2008 10:43pm
anon252 (mail):
"Senator McCain is in the left wing of the Republican Party and President Bush is on the conservative edge of his Party." how meaningful is this data considering all individual votes when, e.g., Bush pushed through the largest entitlement program since LBJ, and McCain voted against it? Or, for that matter, that Bush wanted to pass the immigration bill, and the Republicans in Congress were mainly against it? It strikes me that one has to weight bills by their importance, not be sheer numbers. McCain's vote against Medicare expansion is worth literally hundreds of other votes on spending issues.
8.25.2008 10:44pm
David Warner:
As far as I can tell, the authors of the study get to decide what counts as liberal and conservative, or am I missing something?

They baldy state at one point that they consider economic libertarianism right wing. So unless I am mistaken, all Bush being out there on the tail means is that he takes the opposite side of the Democratic Party most consistently, which is not the same as being most conservative.
8.25.2008 10:59pm
Dave D. (mail):
....Hmmm, " since time immemorial " don't really mean September 3, 1189...or do you ?
8.25.2008 11:12pm
Enjoying the Kool Ade, Mr. Benjamin?

This is unadulterated hogwash.

If gerrymandering doesn't matter, then why do incumbent politicians fight tooth and nail to carefully draw each Congressional boundary, carefully scrutinizing the census data in every city, town and precinct?

In fact, gerrymandering allows politicians to select their voters, rather than allowing the voters to select their Representatives. Gerrymandering is undemocratic, un-American, and the sole reason that Congresscritters get elected in the same general percentages every two years as the old Soviet Politburo.
8.25.2008 11:16pm
Eli Rabett (www):
Gerrymandering does not cause polarization, it finds it. Oh yeah here is the original illustration
8.25.2008 11:22pm
Jake (Guest) (mail):
It looks like all the scoring work is being done by their DW-NOMINATE system. The only thing I could find on their site about the system is that there are two dimensions: "the first dimension can be interpreted in most periods as government intervention in the economy or liberal-conservative in the modern era" and the second dimension no longer matters. Anybody wishing further explanation is referred to their book.

It looks like they not only rank a politician's ideology with a single number, but that they derive this number from a single standard where laissez-faire economics = conservative. And of course we have to take their coding of each vote on faith.

It may be that Obama is the ninth-most economically interventionist Senator, but I don't see how you can get a good rank of "liberal-ness" after you throw out all of the culture war stuff. And the foreign wars stuff. I would also think you would see McCain move rightward if you factored those things back in.

Finally, I'm skeptical that you can feed numbers into the same system to get a ranking for Senators and Presidents, since their roles are so different.
8.25.2008 11:23pm
Jim at FSU (mail):
I find it very unlikely that the definition of "liberal" vs "conservative" stayed constant between the civil war and today, as the author appears to assume. I also find it unlikely that anyone would be able to look at the congressional voting records and reach the same result twice in terms of putting things into liberal and conservative piles.

This whole thing reeks of pre-determined result and data shaping. The big emphasis on "income inequality" is a big tipoff that there is a socialist agenda at work here. The only reason to even raise the idea of income inequality as a political issue is to suggest the "solution" of redistributing wealth.

I also think that the lack of "polarization" in the pre-80s decades was mainly due to the fact that all information was controlled by a tiny oligarchy (big 3 TV networks and a few major newspapers, no talk radio or internet) that had total control of what stories ran and what stories remained hidden from the public view. Polarization only erupted because people realized what their elected representatives were up to and fought back.
8.25.2008 11:46pm
The figures are based on NOMINATE scores, which basically scales legislators based on all recorded roll-call votes. It doesn't rely on a substantive coding of the votes; it just tells you how often and on which votes each pair of legislators voted together. Giving a substantive interpretation to the voting dimensions is a different question. So, this just tells you that Clinton and Obama almost always voted together, they sometimes deviated from Kennedy, they rarely voted with McCain, and they basically never voted with Brownback. The fact that most of the action is on the x axis indicates that the culture war stuff, etc. at this point doesn't do much to distinguish the voting records of liberals and conservatives from one another -- liberals are liberals across the board, and vice versa. Things looked different in the 1950s.

Presidents always look like extremists. They express preferences on too few votes, and those are too politically salient. I wouldn't put much weight on the precise placement of Bush, but to the right of McCain is certainly plausible given recent behavior.
8.26.2008 12:15am
george (mail):
I think one of the problems here is the idea that "Obama is slightly to the left of his party". The ideological mapping probably took into account his STATED positions, but we know for a fact many of his stated positions don't correspond to his REAL positions. Does anyone believe he really believes the Supreme Court decision to bar the death penalty for child rapists is wrong. Or that he agrees with the gun rights decision in DC? His past associations with Wright and Ayers and other much extremely radical individuals without any obvious questioning of their doctrines or agendas don't jive with the moderate persona he is trying to recreate himself into. What crossing the aisle? What bipartisanship? This guy is not a moderate or mainstream Democrat.
8.26.2008 12:32am
loki13 (mail):

The ideological mapping probably took into account his STATED positions . . .

Does anyone really believe George looked at any of the provided links? Gorge is not a moderate or mainstram Volokh Conspiracy reader.
8.26.2008 12:49am

McCain's vote against Medicare expansion is worth literally hundreds of other votes on spending issues.

How many votes is his immigration sponsorship worth then? Or BiCRA for that matter?
8.26.2008 12:54am
Gorge [sic] is not a moderate or mainstram Volokh Conspiracy reader.
Neither is loki13, for that matter.

8.26.2008 1:02am
8.26.2008 1:23am
j.D (mail):
Wow. Bush is on the far-right? Well I'll be. I guess the more you call someone a conservative the more truer that label becomes.

The Republicans have been trending leftward since Reagan's second term. In 8 years, we'll see Lieberman run on the GOP Ticket. But so long as people call him a conservative, it should work out.

I guess the same follows for Obama being a hard-left democrat.
8.26.2008 2:12am
Richard S:
How is a President scored? Might the pattern for Presidents tend to be different from that of legislators?
8.26.2008 3:00am
Presidents are located in NOMINATE space based on CQ presidential support roll calls. Basically, the president is treated like a legislator who voted 100% on the CQ presidential support votes.
8.26.2008 3:14am
MEC2 (www):
Is it really telling to look at a candidates Congressional record during and immediately preceding their run for the White House? Do we really expect to see anything other than highly triangulated voting to specifically avoid the margins or creating a gap between candidates that could be exploited by an opponent? There is electoral safety in numbers...
8.26.2008 3:24am
mariner (mail):
Completely OT, but did anyone else notice who drew the gerry-mander cartoon?
8.26.2008 3:43am
Sarcastro (www):
I've called the Bureau of Weights and Measures and made some arrangements. If Bush doesn't agree with ME he's no longer defined as Conservative!

And if he's not Conservative, he's liberal!

Also, I'm working on something where the more I dislike someone, the more liberal they are.
8.26.2008 9:34am
What makes the numbers worthless to me is that they are all zero-based. The measure is of how far each party moved relative to the other party.

There is no indication of whether the two parties moved apart, one moved and the other remained stationary, or whether the two parties moved in the same direction, but one moved faster than the other.

If you are going to answer the question "why the increased polarization", you need to know how the parties moved against some fixed point, not simply how they moved relative to each other.
8.26.2008 10:10am
Anderson (mail):
Are you implying that these are necessarily contradictory?

Ha! Good one, Nieporent.
8.26.2008 10:13am
JosephSlater (mail):
Don't know about the methodolgoy generally, but it's always been pretty clear that Obama and Hillary weren't that different on the substance of their positions.
8.26.2008 10:35am
Norman Bates (mail):
May I suggest a much better way of indexing the ideological leanings of senators and representatives: Dozens of organizations with clear political agendas constantly generate scorecards for every senator and congressman based on their voting records, public pronouncements, and other behaviors. These organizations have a strong interest in communicating to their memberships and other target audiences how they truly feel about each senator and congressman. Combining all of these into an overall index of political position, e.g., liberal v. conservative, should provide a highly effective measure of an individual politician's place in the political spectrum. Rankings by political scientists and other academics, like the one cited in the start to this thread, are very subjective and often support a hidden agenda.

When one looks at the rankings I suggest using, Obama is far more left and McCain far more centrist than these ad hoc indexes constructed by leftward leanining academics.
8.26.2008 10:36am
LM (mail):

Also, I'm working on something where the more I dislike someone, the more liberal they are.

It's sad when something ridiculous enough to be parody is indistinguishable from reality.
8.26.2008 10:48am
David Warner:
"It's sad when something ridiculous enough to be parody is indistinguishable from reality."

Add the other half of that reality, and you've got the phenomenon noted by the study.
8.26.2008 11:00am
loki13 (mail):

Nice to meet you, cauldron!
8.26.2008 11:38am
LM (mail):
David Warner,

8.26.2008 11:47am
p. rich (mail) (www):
How does a "Present" vote factor in when that happens to be a pol's dominant position on most substantive issues? Does "carefully ambitious" constitute a category outside of the liberal-conservative spectrum? Does a 25-pound bag of flour make a large biscuit? Obama who?

Answers will be posted on the faculty bulletin board after class.
8.26.2008 11:49am
Assistant Village Idiot (mail) (www):
Excellent comments. I have to make this my first stop more often. The weaknesses in both the definition and measurement of liberal vs. conservative are aptly noted here. Let me add more.

Even if we take their data at face value, it shows only correlation, not causation. They speculate - rather wildly, I think - on the causation but don't provide evidence. They draw conclusions up through 2006 even though their economic data mostly goes only to 1999. They chop and squish their graphs at carefully selected places to create a more dramatic impression. The linked-through interviews and commentary consistently portray Republicans as having moved to the right, but their own graphs show the Democrats moving left and Republicans holding steady.

When Franks is cited as a source, you know that something in their thinking isn't too rigorous.

To their credit, they do show some interesting interactions with immigration policy and public opinion.
8.26.2008 12:08pm
Ned Ludd (mail):
Isn't there a problem with comparing a President who proposes legislation with a legislator who votes on it only after the process of compromise. If I'm reading this right, that was what was done here. But it's not an apt comparison. Bush is making a "first offer" in a negotiation. The votes are the denouement that negotiation process.

8.26.2008 3:59pm
jukeboxgrad (mail):

If only he could make it so each time you hit refresh it updates McCain's positions

8.27.2008 3:26am

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