It’s been a dizzying week for me, with a whole bunch of press and blogosphere attention to my previous post about Dede Scozzafava in the special race for the 23rd Congressional District in New York.

These included mentions, amongst others, by David Brooks (NYT), Frank Rich (NYT), Kevin Drum (Mother Jones), and Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic).

My little web site, which normally sees maybe a couple dozen visits a week, swelled into the thousands last week. This really shows the power of academically oriented blogs like The Monkey Cage and FiveThirtyEight, not to mention the individual following of my friend and co-author Andrew Gelman to push new political science research into the debate on currently unfolding political events.

I’d previously gotten some attention for my book with Andrew, but that was for analyzing past elections, not a current one. This is a great development for us political scientists, who’ve too often watched from the sidelines as pundits have monopolized the public debate with analysis too often done by gut instinct alone.

A lot of the commentators who read my research have inferred too much from it, however. My tongue-in-cheek post was intended to tweak the conventional wisdom. Rather than Scozzafava being too liberal, I called her moderately conservative. The punch line, of course, was that the context for this label was that she was moderately conservative … relative to the New York State legislature, and its Republican caucus!

Too many commentators forget that context, and only focused on the first part of my post. That is, they claimed my research showed that Scozzafava was moderately conservative, period.

But that’s not right. The terms liberal and conservative have no fixed meaning in the American political context (one might say in political philosophy in general). They are terms which are meaningful for American politicians  only in context. New York isn’t Texas, but they both have Democratic and Republican parties, and they both have self-described liberals and conservatives. Needless to say, New York liberal doesn’t necessarily coincide with Texas liberal (except perhaps inside Austin), nor New York conservative with Texas conservative. The key question is: conservative or liberal, relative to what?

So, yes, Scozzafava’s a moderate conservative, relative to Albany Republicans, and to New York legislators in general. But that’s only because Albany Republicans are really liberal (relative to parties in other states), and because New York’s Legislature is really, really liberal. And as I mentioned in my original post, she was seeking to replace John McHugh, someone considerably more conservative than she.

So it perhaps makes sense that she might have been cross-endorsed by the Working Families Party in the past, or that her husband is a big labor leader, or that she’s now turned around and endorsed the Democratic candidate since her departure from the race.

Thus, it is simultaneously true that she is moderately conservative in her state legislative context and liberal in the American Republican context, or with respect to the replacement of the 23rd district incumbent, or the rest of the New York delegation.

There is one remaining question. How conservative was she in relation to the voters of the 23rd District? Nate Silver, who’s a pretty sharp fellow (and a University of Chicago alum), in the course of responding to arguments from liberals who claim a Hoffman win would actually be good for liberals, writes:

[D]o Democrats really want to be celebrating if an extreme conservative like Hoffman … is able to win a very middle-of-the-road district like NY-23? …. But if a Glenn Beck-ian conservative is able to win a district that shares a frontier with Vermont and Canada, ought that not be at least a little bit worrying for Democrats in terms of the mood of the country?

There are two claims here. First, Hoffman is an extreme conservative. Second, he’s extreme relative to the district. Is he right? Maybe, but Silver doesn’t have the evidence to back up his conjecture. Both claims are extremely hard questions to solve objectively. More on this in a later post…

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