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What Paul Ryan Has That Kevin McCarthy And John Boehner Don’t

Paul Ryan has made some pretty steep demands of the House Republican caucus — and particularly the group of adamant conservatives known as the Freedom Caucus — as a condition of becoming the House speaker. The Freedom Caucus voted Wednesday night to support Ryan as speaker, but there remains a chance that Ryan could walk away from the job, just as John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy did.

If he is elected speaker, Ryan may still struggle to hold the Republican caucus together, but his voting record suggests that he does have a few things going for him that neither Boehner nor McCarthy had.

For one thing, he is more conservative, putting him closer to the 30 or so members of the Freedom Caucus who want to take a harder line in negotiations with Democrats. The group was instrumental in making Boehner’s life miserable and the speakership unattractive to McCarthy.

We can see how conservative they are by looking at their voting records in Congress. Specifically, we can look at the first dimension of their DW-Nominate scores, an algorithm that rates members of Congress on a liberal-conservative scale based on their legislative votes (where 1 is the most conservative and -1 is most liberal). The average Freedom Caucus member scores a 0.65. That’s far more conservative than the average House Republican’s score of 0.49.

Ryan’s ideological score of 0.56 puts him halfway between the average Republican and the average Freedom Caucus member. His score is more conservative than either Boehner’s 0.52 or McCarthy’s 0.46. To put those scores in perspective, Ryan is in the 36th percentile for conservatism among the Republican caucus, while Boehner is in the 46th percentile and McCarthy is in the 56th percentile. Will that extra bit of conservatism be enough to satisfy the Freedom Caucus?


Even if it isn’t, Ryan has another trick up his sleeve: His voting record suggests that he’s less a part of the establishment than Boehner or McCarthy. Freedom Caucus members are considerably less likely to be members of the establishment. We see that in the second dimension of DW-Nominate. Representatives with a more negative score tend to be more anti-establishment. The average Republican has a score of 0.09, while the average Freedom Caucus member is at -0.19. Ryan clocks in at a score of -0.23, which is about in line with the average Freedom Caucus member. Boehner has a score of 0.03 over his career, and McCarthy is at 0.25.

Ryan’s record on these metrics gives us an explanation of why Boehner pushed Ryan’s bid so hard. Ryan has a record that lines up with the Freedom Caucus better than either Boehner’s or McCarthy’s, though he isn’t so conservative as to be too far out of the Republican mainstream. The question ultimately is whether Ryan’s record will be good enough to satisfy the Freedom Caucus over the long term. We simply don’t know given that the Republican caucus has become more conservative and confrontational over the past few years.

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