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“He is the senator with the most liberal voting record.”

- February 1, 2008

“Who is Barack Obama?”

Just days before Super-Duper Tuesday, the National Journal has begun to release its annual study of the 2007 voting records of all House and Senate members. According to the NJ’s vote study, Obama is the most liberal senator in the Senate; Hillary Clinton trails, coming in with the 16th most liberal voting record. (For those loyal NJ readers, this may ring a bell: John Kerry’s voting record in 2003 earned him a similar ranking as the most liberal senator when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004.) I would share other noteworthy senators’ scores with Monkey Cage readers, but National Journal is holding all the other rankings under wraps until March. But don’t hold your breath for John McCain’s voting score to determine whether or not he is a true conservative. Camping out in New Hampshire kept McCain from casting enough votes to be scored.

NJ calculates ideological scores over three different policy areas– economic, foreign policy, and social issues. NJ this year selected 99 votes that mapped most closely on a liberal-conservative dimension across the three issue areas. Absences are not counted, with the denominator of total votes adjusted to reflect only those votes cast by the senator. Obama missed a third of the votes, casting a “liberal” vote 65 out of 66 times at bat. (Note that Clinton missed significantly fewer votes.) Isolate the 65 votes in the study that both senators were present for, and their records are identical on 63 of the votes– suggesting that voting absences largely account for the 15 point difference between the two leading Democratic presidential contenders.

How reliable are the NJ scores? Because of the selective character of the NJ rating system and the unevenness of senators’ participation, we should compare the NJ ranking to the 2007 ideological rankings produced by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal– developers of the widely-used NOMINATE scores. Using all non-unanimous votes and a far more complicated computational algorithm, Poole and Rosenthal’s 2007 scaling places Obama as the 10th most liberal senator, with senators such as Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden to Obama’s left. So is Obama a liberal? Undoubtedly, but likely not the most liberal. (After all, last week the Clinton camp was accusing Obama of favoring Ronald Reagan.)

And how did McCain fare in Poole and Rosenthal’s scaling? Keeping in mind that he missed over 40% of the votes included in the Poole analysis, McCain managed to cast one of the most conservative voting records in the Senate, with just 7 senators to his right.

Agents of change come from everywhere.