Presidential Candidates: Where Do They Stand?

Most campaigns feature efforts by the candidates to characterize their opponent as being out of the mainstream—as an extreme liberal or as part of the far right. The current presidential campaign is no exception.

Thus far, most of the ideological fire has been directed at the Kerry-Edwards ticket. The Bush campaign has gotten particularly good mileage out of a National Journal analysis of roll call voting in 2003 that ranked John Kerry of Massachusetts as the No. 1 liberal in the Senate and John Edwards of North Carolina as the fourth-most-liberal senator.

Yet the senators’ ratings are misleading because of the large number of votes each man missed. Mr. Kerry, for example, attended so few votes on social and foreign policy that his composite score in 2003 was based only on economic policy. Even then he was not the single most liberal senator on economic issues; it was a distinction he shared with six other senators, including Bob Graham of Florida.

So where do the Democratic nominees really fit along the left-right spectrum? Well, you get a different answer if your calculations are based on nearly all votes cast by the candidates in their Senate careers. Using this measure, we have arrayed Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards from left to right in the above figure based on their voting history in the Senate. For comparison’s sake, we also have included Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John McCain of Arizona, and the parties’ median senators. We even have scores for President Bush (from his announced positions on roll call votes while president) and Vice President Dick Cheney (based on the votes he cast when he represented Wyoming in the House of Representatives from 1979 through 1988).

Assertions that the Democrats’ presumptive nominees are extreme liberals fall flat. True, Mr. Kerry’s voting history places him to the left of today’s median Senate Democrat (Tom Daschle of South Dakota). But he is closer to the center of the Democratic Party than he is to the most liberal senators, including Mr. Kennedy. John Edwards falls just to the right of the median Democrat. In fact, he is nearly indistinguishable from Mr. Lieberman, the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate in 2000.

On the other side of the partisan divide, Mr. Bush—like Mr. Kerry—is more extreme than his party’s median senator (Richard Shelby of Alabama). He is also noticeably more conservative than his primary challenger in 2000, John McCain. So any assertion that the Democratic candidates are out of the mainstream might easily be applied to the Republicans as well. In fact, if any of the four candidates on the national party tickets this year is out of the mainstream, it is Mr. Cheney, who in his last full term in the House was on the right flank of roughly 90 percent of his Republican colleagues.