Dr. Keith Poole at the University of Houston has come out with a statistical ranking of all members of the 107th Senate. It attempts to rank Senators on a liberal-conservative continuum, based on their voting behavior on bills which came before the Senate in 2002.
To compile this ranking, Dr. Poole uses the Optimal Classification algorithm and based on my understanding of it (which is none, the methodology reads like a tax form written in Sanskrit) his procedures seem to be in good order. If my qualified endorsement doesn’t convince you of the accuracy of this statistical exercise, perhaps you'll have more confidence knowing that Dr. Poole holds the prestigious Kenneth L. Lay chair of Political Science at the University of Houston. (Really, check out Poole’s profile). It makes me wonder whether the bestowing of this honor will be featured in the upcoming Enron movie on CBS. Considering the level of talent cast in the starring roles of this production, I imagine a scene with Mike Farrel as Ken Lay presenting this honor to Dr. Poole, as played by Dr. Demento.
Assuming the statistical model is accurate (and in all seriousness, it appears to be well considered and executed), it’s interesting to note who comes out where. At the extremes, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin is at number 1, meaning most liberal. And at number 102 (there were extenuating circumstances that caused more than 100 Senators to be ranked this year), the most conservative Senator is John Kyl of Arizona. Of local interest, coming in at Number 2 was Mark Dayton. That Mark Dayton would fall on the liberal side of the continuum is not a surprise. But the fact that he had the second most liberal voting record in the entire Senate is surprising. As measured by his voting behavior, Dayton was more liberal than Paul Wellstone (#6 - who admittedly was running for election, which may have tempered his impulses ever so slightly), and more liberal than the likes of Ted Kennedy (#8), Robert Byrd (#12.5), and Hillary Clinton (#22).
Dayton has kept a low profile since being elected in 2000, which is perhaps appropriate for the Senator who had the least seniority in the 107th Senate. But perhaps his Claude Raines-like stature was for his own good, since I don’t think most Minnesotans would have guessed he was at the extreme Left of his party. Of course, as the DFL endorsed candidate, no one would expect Dayton to be conservative in any way. But the 2000 campaign had very little to do with a broader ideological debate. Dayton was never challenged on his core beliefs, rather he ran primarily on the canard issue of prescription drug benefits and on the fact that he wasn’t the paternally beleaguered and personality paralyzed Rod Grams. This, combined with his high name recognition and his ability to personally finance and outspend his opponent by almost 2-to-1, lead to a 49%-43% margin of victory. This is extremely close when you consider another 6% of the vote was received by moderate to conservative leaning Independent candidate Jim Gibson.
Dayton himself can rightly be described as deeply frozen in the personality department. He’s a lousy campaigner who seems ill at ease in public speaking appearances, especially when they’re not scripted. You can see his discomfort ratchet up even further when he attempts to mouth the class warrior rhetoric which is the foundation of the Democratic platform. Granted, as a dilettante heir to the Dayton-Hudson fortune, one who has embraced the life of extreme luxury and privilege his whole life, it must be difficult to capriciously condemn the rich and extoll the virtues of being poor and needy. But, to his consistency discredit, Dayton does attempt to play this game whenever he’s called to do so.
However rhetoric of that nature only plays to the base of the DFL party, which recent elections in Minnesota seem to indicate comprise no more than about 33% of the electorate. Meaning, the next Senate election in Minnesota may hinge once again on the so called swing voters, the exact types of voters that may not be inclined to support someone who is among the most liberal members of a very liberal party. If the Republicans can field a candidate in 2006 who presents legitimately middle class credentials combined with the proper appeals to sound economic policy and a strong national defense and who has a proven record of accomplishment under trying circumstances, it could be a walkover for the GOP. Can anybody say Pawlenty in 2006? Maybe I should wait until that “proven record of accomplishment” thing comes together before I start printing up any t-shirts.