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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I’m not about to get into a discussion of the theology of Pat Robertson, and it seems that the only alternative this week is to post on the Massachusetts Senate race. Here’s something from my colleague Boris Shor, who’s done work with Nolan McCarty on estimating the political ideologies of state legislatures. Boris writes:

A special Senate election is being held next Tuesday in Massachusetts to finish Edward Kennedy’s term. The candidates are Martha Coakley (D), and State Senator Scott P. Brown (R). . . . recent polls show Brown matching or even exceeding Coakley’s electoral support, in one of the most liberal states in the entire country . . .

Brown is attracting very positive national and state Republican and conservative attention. On the other hand, State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava attracted very negative attention from conservatives in her special election campaign for the 23rd Congressional District of New York.

Brown is actually a liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of Dede Scozzafava! So why, then, the enthusiasm gap in support for the two? This post documents this assertion, and then answers this puzzle.

How liberal or conservative is [Scott Brown]? We have evidence from multiple sources. The Boston Globe, in its editorial endorsing Coakley, called Brown “in the mode of the national GOP.” Liberal bloggers have tried to tie him to the Tea Party movement, making him out to be very conservative. Chuck Shumer called him “far-right.”

In 2002, he filled out a Votesmart survey on his policy positions in the context of running for the State Senate. Looking through the answers doesn’t reveal too much beyond that he is a pro-choice, anti-tax, pro-gun Republican. His interest group ratings are all over the map. Business and gun rights groups typically rate him very highly, labor and and environmental groups have rated him both middling and high over time. The teacher’s union rated him low in 2001, and high in 2005.

All in all, a very confusing assessment, and quite imprecise. So how do we compare Brown to other state legislators, or more generally to other politicians across the country?


My [Boris's] research, along with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, allows us to make precisely these comparisons. Essentially, I use the entirety of state legislative voting records across the country, and I make them comparable by calibrating them through Project Votesmart’s candidate surveys.

By doing so, I can estimate Brown’s ideological score very precisely. It turns out that his score is –0.17, compared with her score of 0.02. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones. Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my [Boris's] claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!

Boris continues:

Of course, while the Republicans [in Massachusetts] are liberal, Democrats are incredibly liberal. In comparison to them, Brown is a conservative. He was also the most conservative of the tiny handful of Republican State Senators.

Perhaps the most important context in which Brown can be considered a conservative is the electoral one. We’re talking about Massachusetts here, one of the most liberal states in the country, delivering 62% of the vote for Barack Obama, in comparison to 36% of the vote for John McCain. And as liberal as Brown may be, he’d be far more conservative than Edward Kennedy (-.92), or Martha Coakley (no score as she has never been a legislator, nor has she filled out the Votesmart survey – but ACORN has given her its top rating). . . .

It makes perfect sense that Scott Brown, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, has attracted Republican and conservative support. He’s perfectly suited for his liberal state electorate. Dede Scozzafava, in fact considerably more conservative than Scott Brown was not nearly so well matched to her intended constituency, the relatively conservative 23rd District that had returned moderate conservative John McHugh since the 1992 election.

What this shows, however, is that the conservative base in the United States, far from dragging their party moblike into an unelectable extreme, has made the decentralized decision to support the realistically best candidate they can relative to the context in which he’s being elected. The 23rd special district election can also be seen in this light; throwing Scozzafava overboard made far more sense in the context of that electorate.

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