The election is 571 days away, but some Democrats are telling folks to blindly get in line for Clinton. Why?

Using simple data to see how liberal Hillary Clinton actually is

Ben Breier
Apr 16, 2015 · 9 min read

EDIT: To this day, this piece still gets traffic and engagement. For something published organically on Medium, this is significant. I thought it’d be good to update folks on where I stand on this, given this piece came out even before Bernie Sanders had announced his candidacy for the presidency.

I support HRC 100%. I think some of these points still stand below. She’s not my perfect candidate, but as so many people have illustrated in a much more poignant way, you can’t always get what you want. In the end, HRC is one of the most qualified folks who has ever sought the presidency, even if we dont’ see eye-to-eye on policy.

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It’s been less than a week since Hillary Clinton has announced her second candidacy for the President of the United States, and Democrats are already talking about her nomination like 2016 is in the bag.

Hell, some people are already telling you to “get on board with Hillary Clinton, even if she’s not everything you ever dreamed of” a whole 571 days before voters across the country show up to the polls. We’re almost two years out, and progressives are already telling people to get in line.

A rank-and-file attitude doesn’t seem progressive to me.

Come 2016, if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, I will be the first person in line; the alternative is a political recreation of a Walking Dead episode. Our next president will have the power to name up to four Supreme Court justices, depending on the length of their term.

But I want better.

I want actual progression. I want someone that sits as far left as Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Jeb Bush sit on the right. If the Republicans are bringing Deep Blue to the table, I want to be able to match it with Garry Kasparov. Even if it’s not Deep Blue, and something closer to a Compaq Presario, I still want Garry Kasparov at the table. Because there’s no such thing as winning by too many votes.

We need an actual progressive to encourage the base, but the big question is if Hillary Clinton is progressive enough to combat most of our Republican challengers thus far.

Playing to the correct extremes

One of the larger discrepancies floating around on the internet is how liberal Hillary Clinton is, which can be measured in any number of ways. A relatively flat way to do this is to look at House and Senate roll call votes, tally them, and see which way each elected official chose the liberal or conservative viewpoint.

A group of researchers called DW-NOMINATE has been tabulating this data since 1879, tabulating a score that indicates how hard a senator leans politically. Using zero as the median, numbers that dip into the negative indicate a more liberal record of voting, while numbers that rise into the positive represent a more conservative record.

The most common argument I’ve seen in recent days is a report that deems Hillary Clinton the “11th most liberal senator”, which has appeared in the Daily Kos. Whenever I see “data” and “Daily Kos” in the same sentence, I get a little squeamish: I trust the Daily Kos about as much as I trust Matt Drudge.

The most common argument I’ve seen in recent days comes from a Daily Kos “analysis” (a term I use loosely in this case) that claims Hillary Clinton as the 11th most liberal Senator based on this data.

Here’s what the data looks like. The number to the right of the senator’s name is the aforementioned “score” that indicates whether that senator is liberal or conservative. You can find full data for the 110th congressional Senate and the 113th congressional Senate here and here respectively.

A cross section of data from the 110th congressional Senate. In the 110th, Bernie Sanders is the most liberal senator with a score of -.523.

Ideally, this data would be weighted. According to this scale, a liberal vote on an abortion bill is treated the same way as a liberal vote on a highway funding bill, even though one is more politically polarizing than the other.

For now, we’re working with what we have here. Let’s align on some framework that’s more sound than our pals at the Daily Kos. Here are my parameters:

  • We’ll only look at data as it ladders up to Democrats and like-minded Independents. Last time I checked, Republicans can’t run to be the Democratic presidential nominee. This is a polling fallacy — if you want to get an accurate measurement of say, how women who have received an abortion feel about them, you don’t include women who have never had an abortion. Duh.

Now that we’ve aligned on some real framework, let’s see with the data tells us. What I’m doing here is not rocket science (just some simple averages here mostly) but the conclusions are more truthful. This is like looking at Olympic time trials and going beyond the medals to examine how far apart first & last place actually are.

  • When looking at progressive Senators from the 110th Congress, Hillary is more liberal than 79% of them with a “liberal” score of -.391 according to to the data.

Case closed! I’m wrong! If I were writing for the Daily Kos (or alternatively, Fox News), I would stop here. But let’s dig into something more meaningful:

  • Modern day Democrats are more liberal than their 110th Congressional counterparts. The 110th had an average liberal weight of -.316, while the 113th had an average liberal weight of -.346. If I were to separate out the Blue Dog Democrats, both numbers would grow significantly in size, but that would be using the data to lie, and would make the false assumption that not everybody considers Blue Dog Democrats to be true members of the party. I digress, but also am saying this that the data can be stretched to prove my point even further, but I am doing my best to be fair and honest with it.
Polarity between Democrats and Republicans is higher now than it has ever been in the history of DW-NOMINATE studies.
  • Relative to her time, Hillary Clinton is only 19% more liberal than the average Democrat from the 110th. When compared to her modern-day colleagues of the 113th, she’s more liberal than just 12% of them. Again — removing Blue Dogs and moderates would drastically reduce Clinton’s numbers here, bringing her almost to the center.
Clinton’s liberality is marked by red, while the party average is marked by green.

Sounds a lot less impressive than the “11th most liberal senator,” doesn’t it? Seems like you could call her a moderate Democrat.

In total, there are 18 senators below Clinton, but above the party average. That’s only an 8% difference, meaning that Clinton really isn’t that much different than the 18 members that separate her from the average.

Let’s use the same methodology to look at Senators Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and Marco Rubio in the 113th Congress. (Jeb Bush, being a governor, can’t be lumped into this analysis. I wish he could)

  • Senators Rand Paul (.977), Ted Cruz (.939) and Marco Rubio (.580) are the 2nd, 4th and 10th most conservative senators from the 113th according to our data.
Many Republican candidates blast past the middle, while Clinton rides the line.
  • This means Paul is 52% more conservative than the Republican average, while Cruz is 51% more conservative. Rubio is a bit more distant at 17% more conservative.

We also have another recent data set where a pair of Senators battled each other for the Presidency. Let’s take a look at Obama and McCain in the 110th Congress. Here’s what we have:

  • Per the above, the average Democratic from the 110th has a score of -.316. The average Republican has a conservative weight of .426.*

In the above instance, we have an interesting conclusion: the candidate that voted more clearly with their party won the presidency. While Obama was a “moderate Democrat” like Clinton during the 110th, McCain ran away from his base.

This is a very limited data set, but we can only look at Senator versus Senator presidential races for an apples-to-apples comparison. (The last Senator to become President was Richard Nixon 16 years after his term in the Senate ended. He ran against former Senator George McGovern, but they never served simultaneously).

Does this data mean that the 2016 election is a foregone conclusion? Of course not. But in addition to it indicating that Clinton is not as liberal as she appears, it may indicate that running to the center and away from your base (like John McCain did) is bad.

If Cruz or Paul get the Republican nomination, as crazy as it sounds, Democrats may fail at motivating their base. The hopes for the Democratic party then looks like this:

  • Pray Marco Rubio is the nominee.

When you pull yourself away from the numbers and look more at the data, Clinton isn’t the ultra-liberal many hope her to be. Would Clinton have beaten John McCain? Probably. But the data we have could suggest that we don’t need a moderate: we need a hardcore lefty.

Elizabeth Warren has more in common with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul that you’d ever imagine.

There’s a damn good reason why we all love Elizabeth Warren so much, and it’s in the data: she’s the most liberal member of the Senate with a liberal weight of -.622. That’s 44% more liberal than the average Democratic Senator of the 113th Congress, and 35% more liberal than Hillary Clinton.

In other words: on an ideological spectrum, Warren is as close to a mirror to Ted Cruz and Rand Paul that Democrats can achieve (assuming the nominee comes from the Senate).

Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown (30% more liberal than the 110th’s average, 23% more liberal than the 113th’s average) spoke some very true words about being at the political middle to the New Republic.

“If you remember who you are, you don’t have to move to the center, wherever the center happens to be at any moment.”

Clinton is far apart from her base on several core issues, ranging from fracking (she supports it) to abortion (she has stigmatized it) to Iraq (have you been hiding somewhere?). It’s not all horrible: she’s pro-Obamacare and her funding war chest looks to have more money than the Seven Kingdoms, but when you consider who is filling that war chest, it should give you pause.

If it’s Hillary? Sure, get in line.

But when was the last time you lined up for something 571 days from now?

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*Republican data removes Arlen Specter, who switched parties and mostly caucused with the Democrats. His removal changes some numbers, but has no impact on the conclusion.

Ben Breier

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@misterdisco basically everywhere on the internet// senior strategist @ Havas. // fierce bodega loyalty // oh·dc·bk·qns