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Why Kevin McCarthy’s Speaker Bid Was Doomed

Having a conservative track record isn’t everything in the Republican Party. Just ask Donald Trump, who doesn’t have one. Or Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who does. McCarthy decided today not to run for speaker of the House after supposedly having the edge. He faced opposition from the Freedom Caucus, a group of House Republicans who have pushed for a more confrontational approach with Democrats.

McCarthy is in the middle of the House GOP ideologically. Of course, because the GOP as a whole has gotten much more conservative in recent years, that means McCarthy is quite conservative too. But the resistance to electing him speaker wasn’t just about ideology; McCarthy represents a Republican establishment less willing to threaten a government shutdown or refuse to raise the debt ceiling to achieve legislative goals. The split within the party is largely a disagreement over tactics.

The Freedom Caucus1 isn’t composed exclusively of far-right Republicans; many members sit squarely in the GOP’s ideological mainstream. You can see this in the following chart, which shows Freedom Caucus members according to two metrics:

  1. How conservative are they? This is measured by the “first dimension” of DW-Nominate, an algorithm that rates members of Congress on a liberal-conservative scale based on their votes in Congress.
  2. How establishment are they? This is measured by the “second dimension” of DW-Nominate. The second dimension has measured different things over time. Today, the authors of the DW-Nominate system argue that it correlates best with the establishment vs. outsider dynamic.
enten-datalab-mccarthy-1

Clearly, the members of the Freedom Caucus are on the more conservative side of the Republican Party. Notice, however, that its members also tend to be toward the bottom (or anti-establishment) portion of the chart. In fact, the correlation between Freedom Caucus membership and the two different dimensions are nearly equal — in other words, being in the Freedom Caucus is just as much about being anti-establishment as it is about being conservative.

We saw this in action during the speakership vote at the beginning of the year. Again, more conservative Republicans were more likely to vote against Speaker John Boehner, but Republicans with higher anti-establishment scores (toward the bottom of the chart) were also more likely to vote against him.

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The importance of “outsiderness” in the GOP has been evident for a few years. We saw it in votes on the debt ceiling in 2011, the fiscal cliff in 2013, and the budget battles of the last month. As the political scientists who maintain the DW-Nominate system have pointed out about the second dimension: “Although Congress is nearly one-dimensional liberal-conservative, enough stress has built up to clearly divide the Republican Party on many issues.”

If all this sounds familiar, it might be because it’s also playing out in the Republican primary for president. Ben Carson and Trump don’t rank as highly conservative in our ideological rankings as most other 2016 candidates. Nor do they rank as super conservative in the minds of Republican voters. Yet, Trump and Carson currently rank first and second, respectively, in polls of the GOP race. Why? Carson and Trump are outsiders. In FiveThirtyEight’s graphical view of the GOP race, Carson and Trump are far, far away from the establishment.

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Neither Carson nor Trump has ever held elected office. Carson is a soft-spoken, nice guy who doesn’t get entangled playing politics. Trump is the exact opposite: fighting everyone under the sun. Typical politicians are a little bit of each.

The normal rules of politics seem to apply less to the Republican Party each passing day. Carson and Trump’s tenure atop the polls is evidence of that. Boehner came to realize it. And McCarthy apparently figured that out too.

Footnotes

  1. A group of 30 or more mostly conservative Republicans who want to take a more hard-line tone with Democrats.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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