Barack Obama and Vote Rankings
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Jan 31, 2008 at 10:13:37 AM EST
As you very well might have seen by this point, National Journal has ranked Barack Obama as the most liberal Senator in 2007 using a somewhat quizzical methodology. Think you've heard a similar story before? Perhaps it's because the publication did the same thing four years ago to John Kerry. Here's the lede from the folks at NJ (who I don't generally have a beef with and in fact really enjoy reading material from, whether through the Hotline or elsewhere):
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was the most liberal senator in 2007, according to National Journal's 27th annual vote ratings. The insurgent presidential candidate shifted further to the left last year in the run-up to the primaries, after ranking as the 16th- and 10th-most-liberal during his first two years in the Senate.
Leaving aside a debate over whether it's good or not for a presidential candidate to be labeled as the most liberal member of the United States Senate (or the most conservative, for that matter) -- that's really a debate for another post -- was Obama really the most consistently liberal member of the Senate last year? It depends on how you count votes.
Like other presidential candidates coming out of the Senate, Obama missed a lot of votes in 2007 -- one-third of those tallied by NJ, in fact, according to partner site First Read. If you only count those roll call votes, Obama indeed was the most liberal Senator. Similarly, Joe Biden, who presumably also missed quite a few votes last year, ranked as the third most liberal member of the chamber despite the fact that he has generally found himself to be in the center of his party (he was just to the right of the median Democrat in 2006 when he missed far fewer votes, according to NJ rankings).
But when you look at the whole picture, as I believe you should, it's hard not to come to the conclusion that ranking a member who missed a significant number of votes in order to run for President solely on those votes that he or she made (rather than all of the votes being counted for the overall metric) is fuzzy math (as someone once put it...). And this isn't the first time that NJ has engaged in such gaming of the numbers, either.
In 2004, the publication released numbers on Kerry showing him to have been the most liberal member of the Senate during the previous year despite the fact that he, too, had missed a large portion of votes in question (in that case, over half). As a result of the embarrassment and headaches that ensued from publishing numbers that weren't truly reflective of Kerry's voting record -- and having those numbers be bandied about during the 2004 general election -- NJ decided to tighten up its standards. But it did not go far enough (though it did go far enough to get John McCain's votes not to be scrutinized, interestingly enough).
If you play games with numbers enough, you can come up with just about any result. And it seems like this is just what NJ did again this year even though it purported to try not to after 2004. What makes matters worse, the publication released these numbers a full month before it historically releases these numbers -- and only released them on the presidential candidates.
It could be that Obama would have ranked as the most liberal Senator in 2007 (from 16th in 2005 and 10th in 2006), and Biden the third and Hillary Clinton (who missed close to one-fifth of votes) the 16th had they voted on every roll call before the Senate in 2007 (or at least a significantly larger portion of the votes). But that's something we can't know because they were all out on the hustings running for President. And as a result, at least in my view, it makes it at least a bit irresponsible to nonetheless label Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007.