Hillary Clinton was the 11th-most liberal Senator. Why that does (and doesn’t) matter

Liberals are skeptical of Hillary Clinton. She’s corporate, she’s calculated and she’s the wrong kind of religious. As the primary season rolls on, even if she doesn’t have an opponent, she’ll be pressured to answer a lot of questions from her base about just how far her views have evolved since she last ran for office.

But numbers don’t lie and, as phenry at the Daily Kos has noted, Hillary Clinton was, in quantitative terms, quite liberal relative to her Democratic peers during her time as a senator from New York.

As measured by DW-Nominate, a standard metric for measuring partisanship/ideology based on Congressional voting record, Hillary Clinton was the 11th most-liberal member of the Senate in each of her four sessions in Congress. In her last term, that placed her just to the left of Pat Leahy and well to the left of Barack Obama (23rd) and Joe Biden (30th — Biden was the median Democrat in the 110th Congress).

DW-Nominate isn’t a perfect metric, the reasons for which I’ll get to in a moment, but it remains one of the best tools we have available to dispassionately place members of Congress on the ideological spectrum. Rather than relying on subjective evaluations and tea leaf-reading as to her true motives, it takes actual votes cast and compares them to the votes cast by other members of the Senate.

We have no problem using DW-Nominate to point out how unprecedentedly conservative the modern Republican Party is, and how shamefully generous the DC press is when they assign equal blame for dysfunction in Congress to both parties. In this sense, quantifying ideology has a grounding effect, holding politicians against a set standard as opposed to the standards of whichever individual is making an ideological claim.

So based on the data alone, there’s no reason to believe that Hillary Clinton is a Republican in disguise. Her voting record placed her on the left end of the Democratic Party while she was in office, and her -.391 rating would still make her the 18th most liberal senator today (again, one spot to the left of Pat Leahy).

That said, a model is only as good as the data that goes in, and there are number of reasons why, in Hillary Clinton’s case, DW-Nominate probably isn’t the best metric to look at when evaluating how liberal Hillary Clinton is today.

Hillary Clinton, via Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

Hillary Clinton, via Frontpage / Shutterstock.com

For starters, voting record is not by any means the only way to look at a candidate’s ideology. You can also look at public issue statements and, arguably more importantly when considering a candidate running for an office where they don’t have to cast any votes, fundraising. FiveThirtyEight combines the three when estimating candidate ideology, using DW-Nominate for voting record, OnTheIssues for issue statements and CFScores to measure the ideology of  candidate based on their donations.

Often times, voting record matches issues statements matches fundraising, but that isn’t always the case. While Hillary has taken some strongly liberal positions this week, most notably coming out in favor of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, her fundraising matches neither her issues positions nor her voting record:

Hillary Clinton intends to raise and spend more money this election cycle than any candidate in American history. And despite what she might say on the trail, those donations will almost certainly be skewed toward Wall Street and other 1 Percenters. They have been for her entire political career. She isn’t running to represent New York anymore; she’s running for the most powerful elected office in the world. She’s got every incentive to court some of the most powerful people in the world, who will expect a return on their investment.

What’s more, after she left elected office and became Secretary of State, it’s no secret that she was more hawkish than President Obama — and the rest of the Democratic Party — when it came to military intervention abroad. Even if Clinton really has found liberal Jesus at home, she’s given us no reason to believe that she will represent our interests abroad.

So, yes, DW-Nominate is a nifty tool to get a quick read on a candidate’s ideology, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Hillary Clinton may have voted like a liberal in the Senate, but that only tells us so much about how she’d govern as president.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Bill_Perdue

    There are 30 or so assorted partisan Democrats and zionists who don’t like leftists who post there. We’re honored.

  • SophieCT

    I didn’t call him a troll here–I called him the troll from elsewhere. In that other community, 98% of the other folks do call him a troll. I was just acknowledging recognition here, surprised to have come upon him in a different venue.

  • Paul

    Wow, Sophie has numerous comments on at least 31 articles in 15 days and she calls Bill a troll and accuses him of “getting around”? Makes one question where Sophie gets her paycheck.

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  • SophieCT, Bill_Perdue is not a troll here. Many readers do not necessarily agree with his views, but he is a long-time commenter on this blog.
    Unlike you, who happens to be a “newbie.” And you are more than welcome to comment here, but you might want to be a bit more careful about characterizing other commenters as “trolls.”
    You may certainly disagree all you want and make your own opinions known. But be careful about calling out others with whom you disagree as “trolls.”

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  • Demosthenes

    I am far more confident it matters, but in reality who knows?

  • Demosthenes

    You caught me. I was exaggerating for effect. The reality is a Pres. Walker, “Jeb” Bush, Rubio, etc. would pick pretty much the same kind of Justice.

  • My beagle has a better chance at becoming President than Ted Cruz, and he doesn’t even meet the Constitutional requirements. :)

  • At 68, Thomas could easily serve another 10 years, barring a sudden health problem… and considering how limited his actual participation is, and how ridiculous his judicial writings are, one would never be able to tell if he was declining mentally. Kennedy is likely to be replaced by someone pretty close to his own constantly waffling ideology, because that’s as far left as is acceptable these days. I don’t see Scalia ever retiring, as long as he can manage to waddle his fat ass to the bench, but yeah… if for some reason he leaves, he’s likely to be replaced by someone more moderate, but pretty much everyone is more moderate than Scalia. No matter how you look at it, the court still leans solidly to the right.

    Who would I rather pick their replacements? Someone who actually cares about the American people, and actual law instead of right-wing fevered hallucinations, over special interests and corporate interests. Which is to say, nobody currently in the running for President.

  • Bill_Perdue

    They own the country and they own every Democrat and/or Republican candidate and office holder, including judges.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Politicians are corrupt. Powerful politicians are totally corrupt.

  • Demosthenes

    Justices Thomas (68) Kennedy (78) and Scalia (79) aren’t spring chickens. Who would you rather pick their replacements?

  • The court is going to the right, no matter who is President. Souter and Stevens were both significantly more liberal than their replacements. If Ginsburg and Breyer retire they’re most likely to be replaced with jurists who lean more to the right as well, simply to get them through the ever more ridiculous sideshow that confirmation hearings have become. We all know that Scalia will never leave the bench of his own volition, especially not if there’s a sitting Democratic President, and Alito and Thomas are young enough that they could conceivably serve for another decade. There really are no good options here.

  • To me, it’s like choosing between explosive diarrhea and projectile vomiting.

    I’ll let you decide which is which.

  • I haven’t gone through her legislative work while she was a Senator, but I refuse to believe in over 3000 pieces of sponsored legislation that not a single one created an intentional boon for a donor. Suggesting that is the case would be naive if we were talking about the most innocent and honest of politicians to ever exist, much less the figurehead of a deeply ingrained Washington machine.

  • Demosthenes

    “My side”? Okay, whatever.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Working people won’t enjoy the wars of aggression, union busting and attacks on the Bill of Rights that will occur if Democrats or Republicans are elected. Too bad for your side, you’re awakening a sleeping tiger.

  • Demosthenes

    I hope you enjoy Pres. Cruz’s picks to SCOTUS.

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  • Bill_Perdue

    It doesn’t matter which warmongering, union busting party wins.

    Republicans are just as bad as Democrats.

  • Demosthenes

    Okay. You want the GOP candidate for president appointing the next members of SCOTUS. Got it.

  • Compared to most members of Congress over the last ten years, including most of the Democrats, Ronald Reagan looks more liberal, Richard Nixon looks more liberal, Dwight Eisenhower looks like a raging communist. When you start your comparison firmly from the right, of course Clinton looks more liberal. Still doesn’t actually make her liberal, just more so than the right-wing nut jobs we’ve been dealing with. Which really isn’t saying much at all.

  • Bill_Perdue

    By the standards of this or any decade HRH HRClinton is a rabid warmonger, a tool of the rich and a religious nut case.

    “In fact, Clinton’s God talk is more complicated—and more deeply rooted—than either fans or foes would have it, a revelation not just of her determination to out-Jesus the GOP, but of the powerful religious strand in her own politics. … Through all of her years in Washington, Clinton has been an active participant in conservative Bible study and prayer circles that are part of a secretive Capitol Hill group known as the Fellowship. Her collaborations with right-wingers such as Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and former Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) grow in part from that connection.” my underlining

  • Butch1

    I read the article, Sophie and it still doesn’t change anything I have said.

    The democratic party has been drifting to the right along with the republican party in order to try and remain “relevant” with them. It obviously hasn’t worked. The republicans have gotten rid of their moderates and the democrats have mostly gotten rid of their liberals, which is MY point, Sophie. The democratic party consists mainly of moderate republicans!

    No one would be able to recognize where the center is anymore since we have gotten so used to it being between these two parties and it drifting towards the right as well. The real line of center is farther to the left that where it is now. You confuse Clinton for being a liberal, which she is NOT. She is no Bernie Sanders by a long shot! She is also, no Elizabeth Warren by a long shot. She has been in bed with Wall Street for far too long and she is a bigger War Hawk than Bush or even Obama is now. She has bigger cojones than both of them and will need to prove it because being a women, she will have to prove it.

    The liberals, mostly have been voted out of office by our fickle public thinking that we need a more conservative run government. (Thanks, FOX and the other Media outlets that have pushed this along with weak and pathological lying coming from Pelosi and Reid with weak leadership from them as well.)

    They both caved on our Social Security and Safety Net for protecting it. Obama did as well. (e.g. Chained CPI was his answer to fix the Debt.) That is an euphemism for robbing the Senior Citizens of their Social Security and the Disabled Veterans of their benefits. How’s that for the democrats protecting us?

    You think they are on our side? Guess again, Sophie; we need new leadership in that corrupt party that has fallen in step with the republicans who take their orders from Wall Street. You want a Clinton in the White House who is already in bed with Wall Street? The democrats are already as corrupt and connected to Wall Street just like the republicans. Do you wonder why we do not have any representation anymore. The do NOT listen to us, they listen to Wall Street. We need better than this. Wall Street chooses our candidates if you haven’t guessed by now.

    Perhaps, it is YOU who should try reading into the article and stop trying to teach others who just may know a lot more than you think they do.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Congressional Democrats, especially the Dixiecrat wing the Clintons represent, are right wing. They’re neo-liberals, twins of neo-conservatives.

    South African miners have the correct view of neolibs/neocons:

    Photo from Links, the International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

  • Bill_Perdue

    They forgot decades ago.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Wrong. She’s always on the side of warmongers and banksters. Always.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Troll must be Clintonista code for socialist.

  • Bill_Perdue

    Reading is Fundamental. I don’t sympathize at all with HRH HRC’s politics. She’s a rabid warmonger, a tool of WalMart and the banksters, a supporter of TPP and a right wing, barely rebranded religious bigot.

    It makes no difference at all whether Democrats or Republicans win.

    Why do you support Clintons warmongering, union busting and her long time bigotry?

    “Hillary Clinton evolved on same-sex marriage within the first 72 hours of her presidential run, as her campaign said Wednesday that the former secretary of state now backs marriage equality as a US constitutional right.

    The about-face, dropped as Clinton was preparing the second of two progressive-leaning appearances in Iowa, represents a significant – if not completely unexpected – shift from her previous statements that same-sex marriage should be legislated state-by-state rather than on the federal level.” http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/apr/15/hillary-clinton-gay-marriage-presidential-campaign?CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

  • Demosthenes

    So, then, despite sympathizing more with the positions of a Democratic president, including their judicial picks, you will waste your vote on a no-hoper 3rd party and cede the ground to the GOP.

    Is it you, Reince Prebus?

  • SophieCT

    Wow, you’re that troll from JMG–you sure do get around!

  • SophieCT

    What about THIS century and THIS decade?

  • SophieCT

    And yet, she has never given special favors to any donors.

  • SophieCT

    You could try reading the article before you comment. It says:

    “Hillary Clinton was the 11th most-liberal member of the Senate in each of her four sessions in Congress. In her last term, that placed her just to the left of Pat Leahy and well to the left of Barack Obama (23rd) and Joe Biden (30th — Biden was the median Democrat in the 110th Congress).”
    Data. Cold hard facts. Not someone telling you one thing and doing another.

  • Bill_Perdue

    What on earth makes you think the alternative to Democrat racsim, warmongering and union busting is Republicans. Actually, Republicans are just as bad as Democrats. A vote for either is a vote for the right wing and a waste of time.

    My advice for voting on November 8, 2016 is to vote Socialist or Labor, vote for good referendums and if there aren’t any Left candidates write in Chelsea Manning or join the majority in sitting it out.

    It’s always better not to vote at all than to vote for our enemies, Democrats and Republicans.

    “It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for
    what you don’t want and get it.”
    – Eugene V. Debs

    So are you going to vote for HRH HRC because she favors those things and is a religious loon to boot or will you just ignore that and vote for her in spite of her reactionary politics.

  • nicho

    Try one degree and you’d be more correct.

  • Knottwhole

    I will never shill for the least offensive smell.

  • Butch1

    “Liberal?” The democrats have forgotten what real liberals are like if they think she is a liberal.

  • SpaceCommie

    Wow, you have these people too! That’s fantastic.

  • Hillary’s top donors, at least the ones we’re allowed to know about, are invested to the tune of millions of dollars against Wall Street reform, against net neutrality, against college tuition reform, against regulating/restricting the oil industry, and against regulating big agriculture. One can only assume that they would not be donating to her unless they believed their interests aligned.

  • Demosthenes

    Assume Ms. Clinton is the Democratic 2016 nominee for president. Does this mean you will therefore vote for her GOP opponent?

  • Bill_Perdue

    We know HRH HRC would be just as bad if not worse.

    Shes’s a religious loon. “Hillary, ‘The Family,’ and Uganda’s Anti-Gay Christian Mafia – The evangelical organization that describes itself as a Christian mafia has been the hidden hand behind Uganda’s anti-gay bill, along with Rick Warren, the gay-bashing pastor who presided at Obama’s first inauguration. …Hillary Clinton has been active with Family prayer groups since she was First Lady. In her memoir, Living History, Clinton described The Family leader Doug Coe as “a unique presence in Washington: a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God.” http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/25/obama-the-family-and-uganda-s-anti-gay-christian-mafia.html

    She’s a rabid warmonger. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DkS9y5t0tR0

    She’s an open and violent enemy of working people. http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/11/14/the-making-of-hillary-clinton/

  • Bill_Perdue

    The fake liberalism of the Democrats is their way of playing CYA. It’s a dead letter because Democrats are rightwingers moving right. They’ll soon overtake their partners in crime, the Republicans.

    A little snippet from the History of HRH HRClinton. “… Hillary joined the Rose Law Firm, the first woman partner in an outfit almost as old as the Republic. It was all corporate business, and the firm’s prime clients were the state’s business heavyweights ­ Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart, Jackson Stevens Investments, Worthen Bank and the timber company Weyerhaeuser, the state’s largest landowner.

    Two early cases (of a total of five that Hillary actually tried) charted her course. The first concerned the successful effort of Acorn ­ a public interest group doing community organizing ­ to force the utilities to lower electric rates on residential consumers and raise on industrial users. Hillary represented the utilities in a challenge to this progressive law, the classic right-wing claim, arguing that the measure represented an unconstitutional “taking” of property rights. She carried the day for the utilities.

    The second case found Hillary representing the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Arkansas in a lawsuit filed by a disabled former employee who had been denied full retirement benefits by the company. In earlier years … Working now for Coca Cola, Hillary prevailed” http://www.counterpunch.org/2007/11/14/the-making-of-hillary-clinton/ my underlining

  • Who comes up with these lists. They said Obama was the most liberal member of the Senate? He’s not all that liberal on most issues and never claimed to be on most issues. Also, since both of them were senators in an a time when Republicans held majorities for most sessions and didn’t let anything REALLY liberal come up for a vote, how does anyone ascertain how liberal any particular member was? I call bullshit on the entire list.

  • Probably just as important as keeping the White House in the hands of a sane person will be electing Senators and Reps to the left of her to keep her honest.

  • Indigo

    It’s tough to accept but she’s got the cred. She’s even got the right song to sing. She’s the common touch, oh, yes, but she’s a Barry Manilow and I was hoping for a Janis Joplin.

  • nicho

    Great series of articles on Counterpunch on just how “liberal” she is.

    From Nixon Girl to Watergate
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/13/80658/

    The seeds of corruption
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/14/hrc-and-the-arkansas-elite/

    Secrecy, intransigence, and war
    http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/15/secrecy-intransigence-and-war/

  • Don’t be silly. The current Democratic nominee is always the single most-liberal senator or governor in history!!1! See: Obama, Barack; Kerry, John; Gore; Al; Clinton, Bill; etc.

  • Guest

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  • S1AMER

    Hillary ain’t as liberal as I’d like — but she’s at least 179 degrees away from the likely Republican nominee.

  • Hue-Man

    By the standards of 1960s and 1970s Democrats, she’s 100% Republican and of course, the far-right of the TeaParty/GOP has shifted into fascist territory.

  • Indigo

    Good point. I thought I’d voted for modernizing socialism with my vote for Obama. But then Wall Street.

  • Demosthenes

    No one is ever certain in advance of how one would act as president. The past may be prologue, but it isn’t 100% determinative.

    The only exception is for really radical candidates. Texas Sen. “Ted” Cruz comes to mind. We know he’d be awful as president.

  • Indigo

    Voting record matters. Connections matter. Even “donation” records matter. And then there’s the bottom line: we’re talking about politicians.

    In the search for candidates for canonization, my vote is for Father Thomas Byles who went down with the Titanic in 1912.

  • nicho

    Hillary does not say or do anything that hasn’t been “processed” by her pollsters. Every vote, every statement is scrutinized and focus-grouped for maximum vote-getting effect. For example,ndidnshe support same-sex marriage. Yes — after it was safe to do so, after 60 percent of the country had already showed her the way. In looking at her voting record, it’s misleading to look at all votes. You need to look at the votes that count. Even Republicans are allowed to vote “liberal,” if the vote doesn’t matter and if it will help get a few more votes back home. But when the rubber hits the road, they need to do what their coporate masters say.

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