Monday, June 20, 2011


How Conservative is Michele Bachmann?

"Michele Bachmann is nuts!" is a line you can expect many Democrats to offer if Bachmann wins the Republican nomination for President. Bachmann does have the dubious distinction of perhaps suggesting a new round of McCarthy-like trials to find anti-Americans in government...

But is Michelle Bachmann really as far-right as some portray her to be?

I think the best way to determine a politician's political ideology is to look at his/her record. That is, we look look beyond the rhetoric to look at a candidate's actions, not words.

To do so, I suggest we look at Bachmann's voting record in Congress as represented by her DW-Nominate score. Last year, I completed a similar exercise and found now Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) to be far more conservative than I originally thought.

DW-Nominate scores have the distinct advantage of being objective, not subjective. They can also be compared across Congresses. The real disadvantage is that we cannot compare among governors.

As I noted in my Toomey piece, "DW-Nominate scores classify House and Senate members as liberal or conservative based on all their roll call votes than can be identified as liberal or conservative. These scores allow one to compare how rightward or leftward legislators are on a single dimension -1 to 1 scale with higher positive scores indicating a more conservative record."

So where does Bachmann rank?

Among the Representatives and Senators who have served since 1995, Bachmann's record is more conservative than 92% of them with a DW-Nominate score of 0.577. If Bachmann ever become the Republican nominee, Democrats could make a honest case that Bachmann is far to the right of the median legislator.

In a Republican primary, the case for Bachman's far-right conservatism is less clear. Bachmann's rating is about 85% more conservative than her fellow Republicans. That puts her in the conservative part of the Republican caucus, but not too far right.

Consider that the architect of the GOP budget and medicare plan Paul Ryan (R-WI) has a nearly equivalent score of 0.562.

In a race where support for Ryan medicare plan has become a litmus test, Bachman seems in a good position to win over many very conservative and plenty of moderately conservative Republicans too. Her record is also less conservative than Senators Jim DeMint (R-SC), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Pat Toomey (R-PA).

How about among past Republican nominees for President since 1996? Among this relatively small field, Bachmann finds herself to the right, at right around the 85th percentile.

Since 1996, there have been 17 Representatives and Senators who held Congressional office post-1995 and ran for President. Of those, Bachmann is the third most conservative. Only Ron Paul and Tom Tancredo have a more conservative voting record. Her closest match is Phil Gramm, who was a pretty serious contender in 1996.

Bachmann is not so conservative as to be "extreme" in a Republican primary, but conservative enough to be outside of the mainstream. Of course, primaries are more than just about how one matches up ideologically within one's own primary.

Michele Bachmann could probably win an election among Republican primary voters. But with "electability" in a general election becoming more important to Republicans in recent months, primary voters are more likely to deny her the nomination because she of how her voting record would be viewed among a general election electorate.


"*For those interested, you can read a more in-depth non-technical explanation of DW-Nominate scores here and a more technical discussion here."

"**The reason I use 1995 as the cutoff is because prior to the 1980's a legislator's liberal-conservative record was also highly correlated with a second dimension of DW-Nominate scores.

Since the 1980's, however, the scores I use correlate highly with a legislator's overall record vote. Also, many conservative Democrats, who left the Congress after 1994, made Congress less polarized. In an effort to correctly contextualize each legislator's record discussed here, I decided to use 1995 as my starting point for scores."

***This exercise looks only at the first dimension of DW-Nominate scores. Prior to the late 1990's, a second dimension was necessary to pick up on social issues (e.g. civil rights). This second dimension still picks up on some social issues (e.g. abortion), but these issues are "increasingly picked up by" the scores used in this piece.

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