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July 16, 2007

Vote Salience Versus Quantity

The numbers Nick cites on the relative liberalism of the new Democrats are interesting, but strike me as methodologically weak. These measures that evaluate how often politicians break with their party, rather than on what issues they break with their party, are problematic.

All issues, after all, are not created equal. Iraq is not the same as federal holidays is not the same as college loans. So it's telling that Joe Lieberman, who votes for every Iraq extension imaginable and is currently trying to whip up a war with Iran, is the 9th most liberal member of Congress, when most liberals would currently call him a neoconservative. Were we in a massive fight of universal health care right now and a given Democratic politician was voting right on everything but that and Iraq, I also couldn't consider them a liberal no matter how many times they made the right call on conservation issues. A better metric, probably, would be to take a survey measuring what liberals think were the 15 key votes of the last year and see how various politicians came down. The salience of the votes they broke ranks on are at least as important, if not more important, than the quantity.

July 16, 2007 | Permalink


I touched on this in some of the very recent comments. It's true that Lieberman shows up as liberal, and McCain flips between being unbelievably conservative and very moderate. But historically, Lieberman has been in the center or center-right of the Democratic party. This is a new phenomenon.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 16, 2007 9:55:02 AM

I don't think that Ezra is correct. A metric weighted by vote salience wouldn't tell us more than we already know. If you are looking for validation, fine. But if you are looking for information . . . well, surprising information is more useful than confirmatory information.

The quantity metric is surprising us with Lieberman, and is thus very useful. We lefty blogospherians sometimes forget that there is a real difference between Lieberman and the Republicans on most issues. And I never would have thunk that Lieberman is generally drifting to his left. It is more useful to know this than to be validated on Lieberman's war record.

Posted by: Joe S. | Jul 16, 2007 11:35:17 AM

Joe, the information is very flawed, and can not be trusted. It assumes that the Democratic party is a very liberal party, or it's method of determining "liberalness" just won't work. As the Democratic party is much further to the right than your average liberal or progressive, the entire construct is flawed.

Posted by: soullite | Jul 16, 2007 11:53:16 AM

I would temper Joe S.'s thesis by saying "Joe Lieberman is more liberal than we would expect". And indeed, he appears to be more liberal than previous incarnations of Joe Lieberman. That may have something to do with the issue landscape, or the Senate deferring to Joe Lieberman, but it's nonetheless a departure from previous Congresses.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 16, 2007 11:59:38 AM

I made a similar comment in Nicholas Beaudrot's post below, but without the excellent word "salience".

That said, I'll repeat my suggestion from the post below that a version of the study where the votes were broken down by subject, and you could then assign weights to the different subjects and see how the senators break down, would seem desireable. The 15 key votes suggestion might work, but then you are relying on someone's idea of which fifteen are key, and that all fifteen are equal.

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jul 16, 2007 12:19:26 PM

Warren Terra: I'll email keith poole and see if he can put something together that doesn't take too long.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 16, 2007 2:00:22 PM

most liberals would currently call him a neoconservative

Anger is a poor substitute for reality.

As the Democratic party is much further to the right than your average liberal or progressive, the entire construct is flawed.

Guess that explains where Feingold, Dodd and Kennedy rank. The rankings are relative, soullite.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 16, 2007 4:10:23 PM

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