National Journal Mis-Identifies Top Liberals, Conservatives in Congress Once Again: The Radical Harry Reid Edition

It happens every year, or at least so it seems (I don’t always pay attention, there are just too many lies out there).  The National Journal puts out its list of top liberals and conservatives in Congress, based on its arbitrarily-tweaked ranking methodology, and lo and behold some Democratic leader invariably shows up as “the most liberal Democrat in Congress.”  When John Kerry was running for President in 2004, he was “the most liberal Democrat”–NOT! as Scoobie Davis and others showed, including a trio of political scientists from Princeton & Stanford in a 24-page paper, “‘The Most Liberal Senator’?: Analyzing and Interpreting Congressional Roll Calls”. When Obama was the candidate in 2008, lo and behold, he was “the most liberal Democrat”–NOT! as I myself explained at some length.

Now it’s Harry Reid’s turn! That’s right, Harry Reid! More liberal than Russ Feingold last year, and just as liberal Bernie Sanders! TPM summarizes the National Journal‘s picture-heavy, fact-lite story. They’re slightly less off-the-mark with identifying the most conservative members, but since “conservative” isn’t used constantly as a demonizing term, this has less of impact politically.

Here’s TPM’s summary of NJ‘s multiple-way ties for first place “most liberal” and “most conservative” in the House and Senate, compared with their actual rankings in order via the DW-Nominate ranking system regarded as the gold standard amongst serious academics, and based on aggregating all but the most lopsided floor votes–with less than 0.5% on the losing side. (Website here.) Unfortunately, the DW-Nominate rankings for 2010 haven’t been released yet, so we have to use 2009 figures, but as we’ll see in a moment, comparing DW-Nominate rankings to NJ‘s 2009 rankings doesn’t change things very much at all (even though Reid didn’t make the “most liberal” ranking then). Reid, of course, isn’t even in the more liberal half of the Democratic caucus, while two others on the list–Cardin and Stabenow–are right on the cusp:

So, out of 9-way tie for first, National Journal managed to get exactly two Senators that ranked in the top 9 according to the DW-Nominate scale. The average DW-Nominate rank for these senators was 18.3, compared to an average rank of 5 for the actual group of the 9 most liberal senators. That’s 3.7 times higher than it should be, if National Journal‘s rankings were accurate. If we look back at National Journal‘s rankings for 2009, we discover that they did a better job in terms of getting a lower average score–but with a smaller list, so the end result is that their average was actually even higher–4.2 times higher than it should have been. So they were, in fact less accurate than the measure we get by comparing this year’s rankings with last years DW-Nominate data:

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