Obama More Liberal Than Kucinich (UPDATE: Maybe Not)

Steven Thomma of McClatchy Newspapers has gone through the National Journal 2006 Congressional Vote Ratings and discovered that, “The most liberal member of Congress running for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination isn’t Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. It’s Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.”

The lifetime liberal scores (maximum 99) for the Democrats:

    -Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, 84.3
    -Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, 79.4
    -Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, 79.2
    -Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, 78.8
    -Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, 76.8

The lifetime conservative scores (maximum 99) for the Republicans:

    -Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, 82.5
    -Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, 81
    -Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, 75.9
    -Sen. John McCain of Arizona, 71.8
    -Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, 71.5
    -Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 51.7

UPDATE: Going through the numbers myself, I see a major flaw in this analysis: These are percentile scores which, so far as I can tell looking at the non-subscriber data, are broken down by House. Obama is more liberal than 84.3 percent of all his Senate colleagues and Hunter is more conservative than 82.5 percent. There is no basis, though, for comparing Obama with Kucinich, since the latter is in the House and is scored against only other House Members. For more on the methodology, see here.

UPDATE: Ed Morrissey is right to note that “these candidates have the disadvantage of actually having voting records, while other contenders like Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney do not have that track record. That’s why Americans have traditionally not elected Presidents from Congress.”

Others blogging on this thus far (Ace, AllahPundit, and Karol Sheinin) are focusing on Thomma’s finding that John McCain has actually gotten more liberal over time, especially on the social issues. Given that these are percentile scores, though, they’re not necessarily comparable over time.

UPDATE: Thomma has modified his article with this disclaimer:

Editors at the National Journal note that they don’t compare Senate voting records directly to that of House members because the votes often differ. Nevertheless, the ratings show that Obama’s Senate record is more liberal than Kucinich’s in the House.

I would instead say that “the ratings show that Obama is more liberal compared to other Senators than Kucinich compared to others in the House.” My guess is that being one of the more liberal/conservative members of the House means more than in the Senate, given that Senators are elected statewide and Representatives by district. The former lends itself to more moderate winners while latter tends to yield more polarization.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    A better comparison would be to use the ADA ratings of the candidates. As the ADA reckons it Kucinich has a 100% ADA rating, Clinton has a 95%, and Obama has a 95%. That strikes me as about right.

    The ACU ratings for Hagel and McCain are 75% and 65% respectively.

    One of the problems with using any of these stats for evaluating what a candidate believes is that party does count for something, at least in the Congress. It’s pretty hard to separate the meaningless show of force votes from the votes as a sign of commitment.

    It’s actually a bit more interesting to look at the year-to-year patterns of the candidates.