Scott Brown’s a Liberal. Why are Conservatives So Enthusiastic?
538‘s Andrew Gelman points me to University of Chicago political scientist Boris Shor‘s analysis of the Massachussets Senate race between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown to fill out the remainder of the late Ted Kennedy’s term. Specifically, he poses an interesting question:
Brown is attracting very positive national and state Republican and conservative attention. On the other hand, State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava attracted very negative attention from conservatives in her special election campaign for the 23rd Congressional District of New York.
Brown is actually a liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of Dede Scozzafava! So why, then, the enthusiasm gap in support for the two?
Citing my ongoing research on ideology in state legislatures in an earlier blog post, I made some waves by arguing that Scozzafava was actually a conservative Republican in a particular context. That context was the New York State legislature, where Republicans are exceedingly liberal relative to the rest of the country. In fact, she was actually located slightly to the right of the average Republican in the legislature. Despite this, there was a firestorm of opposition to her, leading to an insurgent challenge by Doug Hoffman under the Conservative Party label and her subsequent withdrawal from the campaign.
What about Scott Brown? How liberal or conservative is he? We have evidence from multiple sources. The Boston Globe, in its editorial endorsing Coakley, called Brown “in the mode of the national GOP.” Liberal bloggers have tried to tie him to the Tea Party movement, making him out to be very conservative. Chuck Shumer called him “far-right.”
From here, Shor goes on to commit political science, using an elaborate scale that allows us to see how politicians compare to others within there state and then to compare across state lines.
By doing so, I can estimate Brown’s ideological score very precisely. It turns out that his score is —0.17, compared with her score of 0.02. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones.
Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!
Of course, while the Republicans here are liberal, Democrats are incredibly liberal. In comparison to them, Brown is a conservative. He was also the most conservative of the tiny handful of Republican State Senators.
It makes perfect sense that Scott Brown, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, has attracted Republican and conservative support. He’s perfectly suited for his liberal state electorate. Dede Scozzafava, in fact considerably more conservative than Scott Brown was not nearly so well matched to her intended constituency, the relatively conservative 23rd District that had returned moderate conservative John McHugh since the 1992 election.
What this shows, however, is that the conservative base in the United States, far from dragging their party moblike into an unelectable extreme, has made the decentralized decision to support the realistically best candidate they can relative to the context in which he’s being elected. The 23rd special district election can also be seen in this light; throwing Scozzafava overboard made far more sense in the context of that electorate.
Which, incidentally, is exactly what principled conservatives should be doing across the board. Of course, the problem with the NY23 race was that, once conservatives forced Scozzafava from the race, they were left with a candidate who was both too conservative for the district and without the benefit of carrying the Republican Party brand. So, an initially rational choice led to irrational action.