Because I am annoyed about people saying “Hillary Clinton is basically a Republican” I’m going to do some math. As a bonus point, I’ll have “Bernie Sanders is not nearly as extremist as you’ve been told.”

In the modern era, we have a wonderful thing called a NOMINATE score. Based on who a lawmaker votes with, and how frequently, it clusters lawmakers into groups (it turns out, in the US, there are exactly two and they correspond – not surprisingly – to left and right), it assigns a lawmaker a numerical assessment of their ideological position. It’s not perfect, and there are some more precise methods, but it is pretty darn good and most importantly, it’s utterly objective. It doesn’t rely on gut feelings or pet issues. It’s mathematically deduced from voting patterns.

So we can get a mathematical answer to “How liberal or how conservative is Hillary Clinton?” It won’t be based on anyone’s opinion, just on how she actually voted, and who she voted with.

I’m going to use NOMINATE scores from the 110th congress, because it’s the only Senate that contains both Clinton and Sanders, and also has several other useful benchmark senators. (By convention, left-wing ideology is negative numbers on the NOMINATE scale, because negatives are on the left side of a graph. I’m going to stick to that to avoid confusion.) The scale is -1 to +1, with -1 being a perfect liberal partisan, +1 being a perfect conservative partisan, and 0 being a totally balanced centrist.

During the 110th Congress, the Democratic + Independent senate caucus had 51 members, ranging from Sanders (most liberal, a -0.523) to Ben Nelson (most centrist at -0.035). Imagine we had all the senators standing in a line, arranged by NOMINATE score, with Sanders at the left and Nelson on the right.

Now, imagine you take this line and cut it in half. You can’t, quite, because there are an odd number of senators (51), so the man in the middle – Oregon’s own Ron Wyden (at -0.324) – has to pick a side. Oregon’s a pretty liberal state, and Wyden is a pretty liberal guy, so let’s put him on the left. So now there are two groups – 27 leftist democrats (+ independent) running from Sanders to Wyden, and 26 centrist democrats (+ independent) running from future VP and American’s weird uncle Joe Biden (at -0.321) to Ben Nelson.

We know where Sanders is: he’s out holding down the left flank. Where’s Clinton? If you believed the line that “Clinton is basically a Republican,” you’d say definitely on the right side, probably out by Nelson, right?


She’s on the left side. At #13th most liberal member of the senate, with a NOMINATE score of -0.381, she’s at the precise middle of the left wing of the Democratic party. She’s not right wing. She’s not a centrist. She’s not even with Joe Biden at the center of the Democratic party. She’s standing comfortably in the middle of the Democratic left.

As it happens, this was also Obama’s last term in the Senate. So where’s he? He must be off well to the left of Clinton, right? I mean, it’s a truism that Clinton is to the right of Obama … but nope. Even though their scores are almost identical, Obama at -0.363 is a small but noticeable step to the right of Clinton.

Sanders, though, wow, he’s way out in left field, right? At -0.523, he must be well outside the range of reasonable, right? A total nutjob.

Not really.

At -0.523 he is the most liberal senator in the 110th congress (although, in the present congress, he’s actually third behind Warren and Baldwin). But how extremist is that, exactly? Let’s look at the other side for some context.

Imagine a dark mirror of Bernie Sanders, from the evil Star Trek universe, goatee presumably included. Where our Bernie Sanders is a leftist, this Bernie Sanders is a rightist, with exactly the same amount of intensity. He’d easily be the most right-wing Republican, though, right?

Hahahah. No.

The most right-wing Republican in the 110th is Tom Coburn of Oklahoma at 0.807. Holy shit! That’s way more conservative than Sanders is liberal! Imagining our Mirror Bernie, he’d be hovering around 10th place for “most partisan,” right about with John Cornyn at 0.517. Still a pretty strong ideologue but nowhere near the level of the hardcore wingnuts. And, most notably well more moderate than President George W Bush, who in the 110th clocks in at 0.729, on the extreme edge of political partisanship.

Sad note: if you look at the modern senate, the Republicans have entrenched even more. The most extreme republican in the 113th Congress was Mike Lee, at 0.986. The degree to which he’s not a utterly complete right-wing extremist is a rounding error.

So, that’s what’s up with the political alignments of the Democratic primary candidates, and math.

I don’t think this takes into account the issue of riders. Still, it’s interesting.


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