July 2004
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Day July 15, 2004

Kerry as the most liberal senator? Nope, just lies, damned lies, and statistics

The National Journal’s congressional vote ratings apparently show that John Kerry is the “most liberal” Senator in their 2003 analysis. It’s difficult to read the original analysis, however, because NJ is $1700 annually. So here’s a summary article from GovExec.com.

It just doesn’t smell right to me. Yeah, Kerry’s voted on the liberal side many times, but not consistently enough that anyone thinks of him as more liberal than say…Barbara Boxer or Ted Kennedy.


Common wisdom is that “statistics can be used to prove anything.” While untrue, it does matter enormously what methods you use and how one creates the measurements which are summarized by the statistics.

Here’s a case in point. Keith Poole of the University of Houston is a researcher on the statistical analysis of voting patterns. Poole’s analysis of roll call voting in the 108th Senate (as of the end of 2003), shows Kerry mid-way through the Democratic pack. Click the “Continue reading…” link below to see Poole’s roll call ranking (or visit his site for analyses of the House and Supreme Court!). Byrd and Boxer, on average, are the most liberal members of the Senate, according to Poole’s ranking. Kerry occupies the middle of the liberal “half” of the ranking, sandwiched in with Patty Murray, Joe Lieberman, and a few others. Joe Biden, Bayh, Baucus, and Breaux are all “less liberal” than Kerry according to the ranking — which would seem to fit my intuitive notions well.

Kerry is actually fairly moderate, as you’d expect in this election. And his running mate is in the next “cluster” of Senators to the liberal side, along with Hilary Clinton and Maria Cantwell.

Their public statements tally fairly well, in my opinion, with their liberal-moderate ranking in the Poole data set. This should be taken as evidence that despite window-dressing, we’re not seeing markedly different positions from Kerry and Edwards in the presidential campaign than we have as senators. So what we’re hearing from them is probably a fair reflection of what they’ll press as an agenda while in office. There’s no chance Kerry is going to rip off the mask after inauguration and reveal Eugene Debs hiding underneath.

So I’d take the National Journal’s study with a grain of salt. The tar-and-feathering of John Kerry as the “most liberal” member of the Senate is likely pure electioneering, not a statement of fact — or even a credible research result.