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How Liberal Was Obama as a State Senator in Illinois?

This past year, I’ve been working on working on figuring out the ideological preferences of state legislators in comparative perspective. Thanks to Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, we’ve known how liberal or conservative members of Congress are to each other since the late 1980s. Using all non-unanimous roll call votes and a statistical procedure known as ideal point estimation, they’ve been able to construct a common metric for measuring the ideology of politicians. While this measure scores legislators in two ideological dimensions, most attention is paid to the dominant first dimension, which is taken to be a linear scale of liberalism-conservatism. It turns out that this one scale is enough to predict legislative issue preferences on the vast majority of issues.

But state legislators have been–unfairly in my opinion–left out. This is despite the fact that Democrats and Republicans across state legislatures are far more diverse than are the parties across state congressional delegations. Just think of Louisiana and South Carolina Democrats, and compare them to Connecticut and Massachussetts Republicans.

My research on state legislatures in the past year has been aimed at addressing this problem. The key issue is that state legislative agendas are very different, so comparing them is very difficult. I get around this problem using two techniques: 1) relying on state legislators who “graduate” by being elected to Congress later in their careers (like Obama), and 2) the Project Votesmart NPAT questionnaire asked of candidates for Congress and state legislatures for the past decade.  Doing so has allowed me to put all members of Congress and incumbent state legislators for most states on a common scale since approximately the mid 1990.

This research is personally fascinating for me as a relative newcomer to the Land of Lincoln. My home city’s and state’s politics are, umm, legendary, and do not lack for colorful characters.

But, in this election year, the most interesting current or former state legislator is undoubtedly Senator Barack Obama from Illinois. While the National Journal has rated him the most liberal member of the Senate in 2007, the methodology that generated this result is suspect (as it was in 2004). I’d turn instead to the results of the far superior Poole-Rosenthal NOMINATE ideal point estimation algorithm, which finds Obama to be one of the more, but not the most, liberal Senators (just slightly to the left of Senator Clinton).

But what about Obama’s service in the Illinois General Assembly representing Hyde Park? How liberal was he then? So far, it’s been quite difficult to tell. Of course, both sides of the political debate have strong incentives to spin his record; the Democrats want to portray him as more centrist, the Republicans more liberal. During the primary campaign, Clinton attempted to critique Obama as insufficiently liberal, pointing to his voting “present” on a number of controversial topics.

So what’s the truth? The answer: Obama as an Illinois state senator was very liberal, but there were others substantially more liberal still. Of all 295 incumbents who served from 1996-2004 in Illinois, State Senator Obama ranked in the 14th percentile on my liberalism scale. In the Democratic party, he ranked in the 27th percentile. Comparing Obama to all incumbent state legislators in the United States in the mid 1990s to the mid 2000′s, he was in the top 11th percentile. He was about as liberal as James Meeks, pastor and Illinois state Senator. Obama was more liberal than Emil Jones, the president of the Senate and one of Obama’s political mentors, is not as liberal as his protege, ranking in the middle of his party for liberalism, and in the top quarter of the Legislature as a whole. Michael Madigan, the Speaker of the Assembly, is slightly more liberal than Obama, ranking in the top 16 percent of his party and in the top 8 percent of the legislature as a whole.

It appears statewide-office holding Democrats tend to be far more conservative than their purely legislative colleagues, which makes sense given how liberal Cook County is relative to the state as a whole. Rod Blagojevich, current governor (and former state legislator and member of Congress), is a rather conservative Democrat, ranking in the top third of his party for leaning to the right (but in the top third of overall legislative liberalism). Lisa Madigan, current Attorney General, former legislator, and potential future gubernatorial candidate (not to mention Michael Madigan’s daughter), is interesting in her rather extreme conservatism for a Democrat. She is in the rightmost 1% of the party, and even in the top 12% of the legislator as a whole. That is to say, she is more conservative than many Republicans in the legislature. She is even more conservative than most state legislators around the country.

I have examined Democrats in this post, but I’ll look at Republicans soon, too.

Technical footnote: in the interests of brevity, I’ve ignored here the fact that these scores are estimated, and thus are measured with error. However, it turns out that these errors are relatively small, thanks to the hundreds or more roll call votes legislators can expect to cast in their career.

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  1. [...] and state legislative voting record, he ranks in the more conservative third of his party. See here for more details. (Of course, he’s no Lisa Madigan, who is one of the most conservative Democrats in the [...]