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How Conservative are Michelle Malkin and Michael Moore?

Following Paul Krugman, John Sides considers how one might measure the ideological position of conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin. I’d heard the name but I don’t have any TV reception and didn’t really know what she stood for. Going to her webpage, I see she’s written three books: “Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores,” “In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in World War II and the War on Terror,” and “Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild.” From her blog, she also appears to have conservative economic views, although it’s hard to separate this from partisanship without going back to posts from previous years.

Krugman wants a “scale of positions on political matters … we might find that only 19 percent of Americans are to the right of Michelle Malkin, while 23 percent are to the left of Michael Moore.” I don’t have enough of a sense about Malkin, but I’m pretty sure that much less than 23% of Americans are to the left of Michael Moore. In chapter 8 of Red State, Blue State is this graph from Joe Bafumi and Michael Herron estimating the ideological positions of congressmembers and voters:

From this graph, it appears that fewer than 20% of Americans are more liberal than the average Democratic congressmember (as of 2006). Accepting the indisputable claim that Michael Moore is quite a bit to the left of the average Democrat in Congress, we can conclude that only a tiny fraction of Americans is to the left of Moore. Maybe 1%.

Bafumi and Herron’s analysis can be disputed on methodological grounds and put into context in different ways (here are graphs showing the breakdown in Republican, Democratic, and battleground states), but I think it’s a good starting point.

Placing Malkin on the ideological scale could be trickier: she’s certainly a partisan Republican and strongly identifies as a conservative, but her book topics on immigration and racial profiling only capture a small subset of the issues usually used to measure ideology. Being “left” or “right” on immigration doesn’t necessarily correlate with positions on economic issues. In any case, if you believe that Malkin is well to the right of the average Republican congressmember, you’ll find from Bafumi and Herron’s graph that far fewer than 19% of Americans would be to her right.

A statistical measurement issue

Sides does a quick try at placing Malkin’s ideology by adding the responses to three survey questions from the National Election Study, each on a 1-7 scale (from 1=most liberal to 7=most conservative), graphing where Americans stand on these issues (on this combined 3-21 scale), and the seeing how Malkin would compare to this distribution, if her responses were a 6 on each question. I have some problems with John’s graph (the data are discrete and run from 3 to 21, yet his curve seems to have more than 19 different points on it; the y-axis doesn’t go down all the way to zero, making the curve look like the distribution drops down to zero at the extremes when it doesn’t really do so), but I think it’s great that he brings data and specific issues into the picture. In support of his idea, I have a couple of comments. First, the particular method he uses–taking some questions and seeing how someone with an average response of 6 out of 7 would look in the distribution–will be highly sensitive to the number of questions used in the analysis. The more responses you add, the more the person-with-average-score-of-6 will be an extreme in the distribution. If you added the responses to 20 questions on a 1-7 scale, I expect you’d get almost nobody with an average score of 6 out of 7. People’s responses to these different questions are not so highly correlated as we political junkies might expect.

One final point

Moore and Malkin may each be more ideologically extreme than 1% of Americans (or maybe 5% of watchers of the Stephanopolous show). But a lot more than 1% of Americans think Michael Moore has something important to say (and, I assume this is true of Malkin as well).