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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