The Oddities of DW-Nominate Scoring

Back on October 23, 2019, I published “The Problems of Interest Group Ratings” and in the process I mentioned a scale called DW-Nominate which is supposed to represent polarization but also ideology. Members who score closest to 1 are “conservative” while members who score closest to -1 are “liberal”. This scale does indeed hold up quite well for contemporary scoring and most certainly for scoring during and after the New Deal. However, this scaling system has some curiosities that make it in some cases not ideal. I present the major examples I have found of when DW-Nominate seems at least a bit off.

Senator Huey P. Long

Huey Long of Louisiana is often thought of as a New Deal critic to FDR’s left, but what if I told you his DW-Nominate score was very high for a Democrat? It is in fact 0.251. There are only six Democrats in the 20th century who pulled off a higher score on this scale. These were Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Rush Dew Holt of West Virginia as well as Representatives Bob Stump of Arizona, Larry McDonald of Georgia, John Rarick of Louisiana, and Dave Satterfield III of Virginia. Thurmond, Holt, and Stump would eventually switch to the GOP, with Thurmond’s and Stump’s records becoming even more conservative on the scale as Republicans. The plethora of some types of votes may push Long in a “right” direction, such as the sheer volume of votes on the Reciprocal Trade Act in 1934 (he was a protectionist, a position that was held by all conservative Republicans in that time) as well as his non-interventionist views best represented by his complete and utter opposition to US membership in the World Court in 1935. For a more balanced scale, perhaps the Reciprocal Trade Act in its final passage gets a vote along with one or maybe two key votes surrounding amendments to the act. The same goes for the World Court. Long may do well on sheer volume, but if key votes are more balanced for ideology, he still does better than you’d expect given his record, but not as one of the most right-wing Democrats in American history by the MC-Index.  

The Socialists

While the members of the Socialist Party did vote independently quite often, this translates into some bizarre outcomes and their true place on the spectrum would likely be better defined by a measurement that emphasizes key ideological issues. Meyer London of New York, for instance, scores a -0.026. This is more liberal than most Republicans, to be sure, but it is also more conservative than most Democrats. It is in fact more conservative than any Democrat currently serving. This goes even more so for Victor Berger of Wisconsin, who scores a 0.176. This is higher than most segregationist Democrats. It is also higher than the following people not commonly thought of as socialists:

Martin Dies Jr., D-Texas, chair of House Un-American Activities Committee, was considerably more conservative in his second go at Congress from 1953 to 1959 than his first, from 1931 to 1945. Focused a lot on anti-communism. – 0.003.

John E. Rankin, D-Miss., notorious bigot who had a dramatic switch from liberalism to conservatism in his career.  – 0.006.

Howard W. Smith, D-Va. – Famously obstructive chair of the House Rules Committee, used his post to block liberal and civil rights legislation. – 0.035.

Richard M. Nixon, R-Calif. – You know who he is! – 0.162.

Pat McCarran, D-Nevada – A staunch Senate anti-communist, non-interventionist, and sometimes friend sometimes foe of the New Deal. – 0.06.

Warren R. Austin, R-Vt. – Senator who voted against most of the New Deal, including Social Security. His support for FDR’s foreign policy helps shift his score into the more moderate column, but regarding him as less conservative than Berger is…well…off. – 0.106.

I think this represents one of the problems with counting all the partisan procedural votes, as the socialists of the day could go with Republicans on those. Bear in mind, however, both Berger and London did cast some votes that were legitimately in the conservative direction, but 0.176 and -0.026 respectively seem like odd places for them, and it puts most Democrats in the historically uncomfortable position of being to the left of the members of the Socialist Party!

Jack Edwards of Alabama and Charles Mosher of Ohio

These two are some of the best examples I have seen where interest groups and DW-Nominate depart on scoring protocol, and where a major issues scoring system might be better representative. Republicans Jack Edwards of Alabama and Charles Mosher of Ohio were commonly known as being from different wings of the party…Edwards conservative and Mosher of the liberal wing. Edwards was strongly supportive of the Nixon Administration on Vietnam while Mosher was a critic, Edwards was an opponent of the Great Society while Mosher supported some of those programs and shifted further left during the Nixon years. However, both score a 0.177. This is not only right above Victor Berger of Wisconsin and below Huey Long of Louisiana, but these two are scored exceedingly differently by ACU (American Conservative Union), ACA (Americans for Constitutional Action), ADA (Americans for Democratic Action), and my scoring system. As you can see below:

Life Score880858755234645

For ADA scores I have adjusted them to not count non-votes against the legislator. I have written in “The Problems of Interest Group Ratings” why I can’t abide this practice. For the MC-Index, it is counted by legislative session rather than year, thus the same scores two years straight. But as you can see, the conservative scoring systems agree that Edwards is in the 80s (solid conservative) while the ADA holds that he is ultra-conservative based on his low score of 8%. Save for the ACU, which starts counting in 1971, ADA, ACA, and the MC-Index all agree that by life score Mosher is a moderate, with this early career being moderately conservative while moving to moderate liberalism during the Nixon Administration. Edwards only has something of a drop-off in conservatism during the Reagan Administration, which the ADA doesn’t even register. That’s it for tonight. I’m sure there are more examples but these are the ones I can think of for now.

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