A special Senate election is being held next Tuesday in Massachusetts to finish Edward Kennedy’s term. The candidates are Martha Coakley (D), and State Senator Scott P. Brown (R).

The election is particularly noteworthy for a number of reasons. First, recent polls show Brown matching or even exceeding Coakley’s electoral support, in one of the most liberal states in the entire country (and one that hasn’t elected a Republican in four decades). See’s aggregation of polls here, and Intrade’s political market for the election here. Second, the consequences of a Brown victory could be the derailment of the Democratic health care reform proposal, if all Senate Republicans maintain party unity.

To my mind, the election is fascinating for another reason. Brown is attracting very positive national and state Republican and conservative attention. On the other hand, State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava attracted very negative attention from conservatives in her special election campaign for the 23rd Congressional District of New York.

Brown is actually a liberal Republican who is to be found to the left of Dede Scozzafava! So why, then, the enthusiasm gap in support for the two? This post documents this assertion, and then answers this puzzle.

Citing my ongoing research on ideology in state legislatures in an earlier blog post, I made some waves by arguing that Scozzafava was actually a conservative Republican in a particular context. That context was the New York State legislature, where Republicans are exceedingly liberal relative to the rest of the country. In fact, she was actually located slightly to the right of the average Republican in the legislature. Despite this, there was a firestorm of opposition to her, leading to an insurgent challenge by Doug Hoffman under the Conservative Party label and her subsequent withdrawal from the campaign.

What about Scott Brown? How liberal or conservative is he? We have evidence from multiple sources. The Boston Globe, in its editorial endorsing Coakley, called Brown “in the mode of the national GOP.” Liberal bloggers have tried to tie him to the Tea Party movement, making him out to be very conservative. Chuck Shumer called him “far-right.”

In 2002, he filled out a Votesmart survey on his policy positions in the context of running for the State Senate. Looking through the answers doesn’t reveal too much beyond that he is a pro-choice, anti-tax, pro-gun Republican. His interest group ratings are all over the map. Business and gun rights groups typically rate him very highly, labor and and environmental groups have rated him both middling and high over time. The teacher’s union rated him low in 2001, and high in 2005.

All in all, a very confusing assessment, and quite imprecise. So how do we compare Brown to other state legislators, or more generally to other politicians across the country? My research, along with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty, allows us to make precisely these comparisons. Essentially, I use the entirety of state legislative voting records across the country, and I make them comparable by calibrating them through Project Votesmart’s candidate surveys.

By doing so, I can estimate Brown’s ideological score very precisely. It turns out that his score is –0.17, compared with her score of 0.02. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones.

Brown’s score puts him at the 34th percentile of his party in Massachusetts over the 1995-2006 time period. In other words, two thirds of other Massachusetts Republican state legislators were more conservative than he was. This is evidence for my claim that he’s a liberal even in his own party. What’s remarkable about this is the fact that Massachusetts Republicans are the most, or nearly the most, liberal Republicans in the entire country!

Plot of state legislative parties.

Of course, while the Republicans here are liberal, Democrats are incredibly liberal. In comparison to them, Brown is a conservative. He was also the most conservative of the tiny handful of Republican State Senators.

Perhaps the most important context in which Brown can be considered a conservative is the electoral one. We’re talking about Massachusetts here, one of the most liberal states in the country, delivering 62% of the vote for Barack Obama, in comparison to 36% of the vote for John McCain. And as liberal as Brown may be, he’d be far more conservative than Edward Kennedy (-.92), or Martha Coakley (no score as she has never been a legislator, nor has she filled out the Votesmart survey – but ACORN has given her its top rating). And the third party candidate here, Libertarian Joseph L. Kennedy (no relation to the famous ones), is not a viable candidate nor is he palatable to mainstream conservatives relative to Brown.

In other words, what began as a puzzle turns out not to be much of oneat all. It makes perfect sense that Scott Brown, a liberal Massachusetts Republican, has attracted Republican and conservative support. He’s perfectly suited for his liberal state electorate. Dede Scozzafava, in fact considerably more conservative than Scott Brown was not nearly so well matched to her intended constituency, the relatively conservative 23rd District that had returned moderate conservative John McHugh since the 1992 election.

What this shows, however, is that the conservative base in the United States, far from dragging their party moblike into an unelectable extreme, has made the decentralized decision to support the realistically best candidate they can relative to the context in which he’s being elected. The 23rd special district election can also be seen in this light; throwing Scozzafava overboard made far more sense in the context of that electorate.

Sean Trende at RealClearPolitics pointed me to a recent article that touches on research of mine.

John Tanner (D-TN) is retiring from the 8th congressional district in 2010. He’s best known as one of the founders of the moderate/conservative Blue Dog Democrats in the House. Running to succeed him is Roy Herron, a Tennessee State Senator who was a former minister.

Josh Kraushaar, a writer at, writes that Herron is to the left of Tanner, which would be a disadvantage in the fairly conservative district. He points to Herron’s authorship of a book called “How can a Christian Be in Politics?” which he interprets as a progressive call-to-arms for the faithful.

But what about their voting records? Tanner is definitely a conservative Democrat; most recently, he voted against the House leadership’s health care bill that passed by a mere five votes. Herron, on the other hand voted, recently voted in favor of legislation that would allow concealed weapons in restaurants serving alcohol (over the veto of the governor).

In my research on state legislative ideology (papers here), I am able to put state legislators and members of Congress on the same scale. In this case, Kraushaar and the Politico are wrong. Tanner scores at –0.38, considerably more conservative than the Democratic average of –0.81 from the 103rd-111th Congresses. But Herron scores at -0.26, or slightly more conservative than the incumbent Tanner.

While Herron would be a conservative Democratic in Congress if elected, he’s a moderate Democratic in Tennessee, where Democrats are quite conservative (eg, more so than their counterparts in Kansas or Missouri).

Update: More evidence that I’m right from The Hill. A review by Publisher’s Weekly made references to “liberal causes” that Herron supports. That review was republished on Herron’s website, minus that phrase. Talk about knowing your electorate!

Seth Masket (University of Denver), in the course of generous words of praise, writes that he fears that variation in agenda control across states could undermine the comparability of ideal point estimates that I used to discuss the ideology of Dede Scozzafava, Republican candidate in a special election for the US House in the 23rd District of New York.

As a bit of introduction, in some states, agenda control is tighter, meaning that parties exercise tight control over what bills get introduced for a vote. In other states, agenda control is looser. For example, Seth’s home state of Colorado adopted an initiative in 1988 called GAVEL (Give A Vote to Every Legislator) which prevents party leaderships from suppressing bills in the early stages of lawmaking.

How could this be a problem? Well, roll call-based measures of ideology, of which our paper is one, relies on the public votes that are allowed to come to the floor for consideration. Thus it could be the case that we have a very “selective” roll call record that suppresses the true range of variation in ideology simply because some bills (typically the minority party’s) never get a vote in some states, but not others.

While variation in agenda control is very interesting, investigating it before now has been very difficult, because we don’t have legislator-level ideal point estimates. So having this problem should be considered a luxury…

But more broadly, existing evidence on Congress leads me to doubt that agenda control is that big of a problem for estimating ideal points. Remember that this was a debate about NOMINATE for a while (eg, Snyder 1992 and Rosenthal 1992, plus the simulation evidence in McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal’s 2006 book), and these concerns havn’t really stopped the ideal point project.

The party line is that since agenda control isn’t perfect, and there’s always error in legislative voting, there should be enough cutpoints to differentiate between legislators. See Poole and Rosenthal on this.

As an additional bit of evidence, the common movement of ideal points between US House and Senate–despite very different agenda-setting institutions–implies that these institutions need not undermine our estimates too badly. Polarization looks like it’s rising in both chambers almost identically. But agenda control is far tighter in the House.

Finally, the roll call-based scores are “normed” by the Votesmart NPAT survey. It should be the case that, even if agenda control compresses the range of ideal points in the state alone, they are decompressed when considered in tandem with an external issue preference survey.

Still, it would behoove us to study these institutions far more carefully. I’m glad for people to use the data to do so, once we get the paper published!

A special election to replace Representative John McHugh (R) is being held in the conservative 23rd District located in northern New York State. State Assemblywoman Deirdre (Dede) Scozzafava is the Republican candidate, attorney Bill Owens is the Democratic candidate, and there’s a prominent Conservative party candidate in Douglas Hoffman (minor parties are much more important in New York than other states for a variety of reasons).

Scozzafava has been assailed from the right for being far too liberal. For example, the libertarian Wall Street Journal this morning wrote of her that:

Democrats want to portray this race as a familiar moderate-conservative GOP split, but the real issue is why Ms. Scozzafava is a Republican at all. She has voted for so many tax increases that the Democrat is attacking her as a tax raiser. She supported the Obama stimulus, and she favors “card check” to make union organizing easier, or at least she did until a recent flip-flop.She has run more than once on the line of the Working Families Party, which is aligned with Acorn. Her voting record in Albany puts her to the left of nearly half of the Democrats in the assembly. She also favors gay marriage, which is to the left of Mr. Obama.

The conservative National Review writes:

In spite of its having gone for Obama in 2008, the district’s history suggests that it is basically conservative; Ms. Scozzafava is basically not. Boy, is she not: Not only pro-choice and in favor of homosexual marriage — common if distasteful concessions to the secular liberals’ agenda — she also supports some of the most odious items on the Left’s wish-list, including the “card check” initiative that would put a big cudgel in the hands of Big Labor while effectively disenfranchising millions of American workers who may not desire to become Teamsters, SEIU members, or similar. She signed the Americans for Tax Reform pledge to oppose tax hikes but immediately declared that she was not bound by having done so. It is no surprise that she is supported by the public-employees unions, ACORN — and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúñiga. (Really.)

A recent bizarre incident recently occurred when John McCormack, a writer at the conservative Weekly Standard, had to answer to the cops after asking about Scozzafava’s issue positions.

It was a fairly typical evening–until the speech ended and someone with Scozzafava’s campaign  called the police. On me.

Despite the laundry list of liberal issue positions held by Scozzafava, my research with Princeton’s Nolan McCarty on ideology in American state legislatures shows that the Assemblywoman is actually a conservative Republican. Wait for it. Wait for it… In New York.

Her ideological “common space” score is 0.02. These scores, similar but far superior to interest group ratings, put state legislators around the country on the same scale with each other, as well as with members of Congress. Liberals have lower scores; conservatives higher ones.

The most liberal legislator in New York state from that served anytime between 1996-2003 is Democratic Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan (Rosie O’Donnell’s brother), with a score of -2.9. One of the most conservative is Republican Robert DiCarlo of Staten Island, with a score of 1.64. DiCarlo was a titled a “maverick” Republican (!) for his conservative views on issues such as abortion by the New York Times.

Scozzafava’s score puts her in the 58th percentile of her party, which makes her slightly more conservative than the average Republican legislator in Albany, so she’s a conservative in her party. For example, she’s more conservative than James Tedisco, who lost a special election to succeed Kirsten Gillenbrand in the 20th District (score: -.22 and in the most liberal fifth of the party). In the legislature as a whole, she’s in the 83rd percentile, which makes her a conservative in Albany in general. Compare her, say, to Republican Thomas Morahan of the 38th Senate District (Rockland County, just across the border from the New Jersey town where I went to high school). He scores a very liberal -0.54, or in the most liberal 2% of his party. No wonder that his party affiliations include the Working Families Party, which is closely associated with organized labor (and ACORN). So she’s no Morahan.

But, of course, she’s a New York Republican and conservative. And if you thought that Republican equals conservative, and Democratic equals liberal, you’d be pretty far off when looking at America’s 50 state legislatures. New York’s Republicans (along with Massachusetts’, Connecticut’s, Hawaii’s, and New Jersey’s) are the most liberal in the country, so much so that Democrats in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Carolina are all more conservative on average.

Here’s a picture of where New York rates ideologically relative to the other states and Congress over the past decade. The grey lines represent, for comparison, the ideology of Congressional Democrats and Republicans in approximately the same time period.


The New York legislature is one thing, and Congress is quite another. If Scozzafava were to win the election, she’d be replacing Representative John McHugh. He scores at 0.4, which is pretty liberal for a Republican (hence his nomination by President Obama), but far more conservative than Scozzafava.

American political parties are wild, diverse beasts, and New York is a perfect example of that. Which makes doing research in this area lots of fun.

Update: It’s quite heartening that this post has made its rounds in the blogosphere. But, a note of caution. The data that lie behind this post and form the basis for the chart are preliminary and subject to change as we update our work.

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