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NRCC Falsifies Data to Smear Democratic Candidates

October 13, 2010 - by Donny Shaw

The National Republican Congressional Committee is running an intentionally misleading national campaign designed to make conservative Democrats in Congress look like liberals. They need to be called out.

The NRCC is airing attack ads against dozens of the most conservative Democrats in the House, who tend to be from districts that are considered possible Republican pick-ups in the upcoming midterm elections. Their explicit strategy is to link these conservative Dems to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D, CA-8]. For example, an ad against Rep. Jim Marshall [D, GA-8], the NRCC claims, “Jim voted with [Pelosi] almost 90% of the time.” Another against Rep. Travis Childers [D, MS-1] claims that “Childers votes with Nancy Pelosi 81% of the time.”

The empirical data does not support the GOP’s claims about these Dem. House members being ideological kindred spirits with Rep. Pelosi. Most members of Congress vote with the majority of their party most of the time (as high as approximately 85-90% of the time), but they also vote with a majority of the opposing party most of the time. The aggregate “votes with” number is not at all a fair way to gauge a member’s position on the ideological spectrum or his or her independence.

The figures the NRCC cites in their ads are based on how often members vote with a majority of their party. The vast majority of these votes are super routine not controversial. They are either procedural in nature, or they are fluff resolutions on things like naming post offices, honoring famous people, and congratulating sports teams. But Nancy Pelosi does not even vote on this stuff. In her role as Speaker, she recuses herself from voting on all but the most contentious items. So the vast majority of the votes factored into the numbers the NRCC uses to support their claims about Dems voting with Pelosi are not even actually votes with Pelosi. Republican Leader Rep. John Boehner [R, OH-8] does vote on this stuff, so actually, they are votes with him. But they are not votes with Pelosi. And even if they were votes with Pelosi, this is a cheap way to distort a member’s actual voting record on the most meaningful legislation here in the reality-based world.

When you filter out all the routine votes and look at just substantial legislation, the data shows that Rep. Marshall votes with Pelosi 66% of the time and with Boehner 56% of the time. Childers votes with Pelosi just 59% of the time and with Boehner 70% of the time.

If you follow Congress, you’d know that Reps. Marshall, Childers and most of the Democrats the NRCC is targeting are actually more like thorns in Pelosi’s side than rubber stamps. But the NRCC knows that most people don’t have time to follow Congress in this level of detail, and lower-information voters will only remember a misleading association — and they are taking advantage of that in order to boost their political prospects. What we have here is a national political group, based in Washington D.C., that is buying airtime in Georgia, Mississippi, and dozens of other states for the sole purpose of misleading voters about their elected representatives. Unacceptable. It’s fundamentally contrary to our non-profit mission to build empirical public knowledge about Congress.

We did more research and identified these issues in two recent blog posts: Voting With Pelosi on Oct. 6th, and Dem. Rep. Uses OpenCongress to Prove Centrist Credentials just yesterday. We reiterate, as we stated then: we do not endorse the use of aggregate “voting with” statistics in campaign ads to imply that a member of Congress is ideologically similar to his or her party leadership. It is lying with statistics. Instead, voters should take a look at the specific voting record of any incumbent candidate, and make more informed decisions based on individual pieces of substantive legislation. We wholly realize this is more difficult than simply asserting that a member votes with Rep. Pelosi or Rep. Boehner a certain % of the time — but Congress is complex, and even though the legislative haystack is very difficult to sort-through, it’s essential to get a fair picture of a member’s true voting record.

There is no quick-fix solution — but what’s a better solution, then? What do we recommend for using vote data to get a picture of where a member stands on the ideological spectrum in Congress? Here’s the best we can urge you to do at the moment: visit a member’s profile page on OC, browse through their “Votes” tab — use our page of Hot Bills to identify major legislation, and see how the member voted on those bills, comparing them if you like to the votes from Rep. Pelosi & Boehner. Use the comment forums to ask questions of your peers and share what you’ve found, and go to our publicly-editable RaceTracker wiki project to learn more about who’s running for Congress in your district. Please keep in mind that all of the data on OpenCongress is open-source, free to remix — so if you’re a web developer or database-guru, you can use our free API to obtain structured data about votes and actions from every member of Congress.

This greater point is in danger of getting lost in the partisan smearing outlined above: while it’s often possible to lie with statistics, non-partisan open-source projects like OpenCongress make it easier for the average voter to get information about legislation in Congress than ever before — whether it’s on one of our user-friendly webpages, or from our uniquely-curated data sources. With any complex, stastistically-gnarly system (say, professional baseball, or public education metrics), it’s easy to use the numbers to unfairly support an unwarranted claim — e.g., the type of misrepresentation we’re seeing in these ads from the NRCC — but it’s our job to fight back against it as much as possible. We’re available to speak in more detail about fair, empirical ways to evaluate a member’s legislative voting record — feel free to contact us anytime.

This post by OpenCongress Congressional Researcher Donny Shaw, with assistance from OC Program Manager David Moore.

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Comments

  • molinechuck 10/13/2010 9:28am

    Are you planning to follow up this article with one about Democrats smearing Republican candidates by claiminmg they are right wing extremists? I like this site as it is basically balanced. This article raises the question of your fairness.

  • Comm_reply
    donnyshaw 10/13/2010 9:42am

    molinechuck, we’re not talking about ads here that claim that Democrats are socialists or what have you. This post refers to a specific set of ads that began airing last week that deliberately misuse transparency and data for backing falsehoods. NYT, CNN, WaPo, Politico and other MSM outlets have been fact-checking these ads as well. We’re committed to helping people find factual, empirically-defensible information about Congress, and we use data and primary sources to do it. When someone — anyone — uses data to hide facts, we are going to step in.

  • Comm_reply
    justamick 10/13/2010 9:59am

    Donny, what molinechuck is asking here is, are you going to post the same kind of article about Democrats pulling the same kind of crap that the Republicans are obviously doing?

    Lets be honest here, you do more than your fair share of Republican bashing on this site. Which is fine, they deserve it. BUT have yet to see the same level of Democrat bashing. I’m not saying you never do it, I’m saying the levels of bashing are not on equal terms and it calls into serious question how legitmate the claims are that this is a non-partisan site.

    There’s a difference between reporting facts and reporting facts with an obvious bias overtone.

  • Comm_reply
    donnyshaw 10/13/2010 10:27am

    If I see Democratic ads that are lying with congressional data, I absolutely will write a similar post about them.

    The back story here is that the Dems targeted in the NRCC ads discussed above have been using OpenCongress data for debunking the ads. That’s how this came to my attention. I have yet to come across Dem ads that do a similar thing with vote data, but if you have examples, please do pass them along ::

    writeus AT opencongress d0t org

    Btw, we’re about to launch a major, crowd-sourced project tracking campaign ads across the country, so we’ll be covering the ad scene and specific ads continually on this blog for the next few weeks. Fact checking and revealing funding sources will be our primary objectives.

  • Comm_reply
    justamick 10/13/2010 11:19am

    The president’s smear campaign with regards to the Chamber of Commerce and recieving funding from outside the country? It’s all over the news and has been for a while… I see no articles regarding that.

  • Comm_reply
    luminous 10/13/2010 3:56pm

    Because its true. Money is what is called fungible, I will illustrate.

    We have 3 people, one holding a hat, Mao Zedong, and any random American(could be you =p). Now you and Mao are holding $100 dollar bills and you each place your $100 dollar bills in the hat. The guy holding the hat shakes it a bit, twirls it around a bit, says some magical words, and presto pulls out a $100 dollar bill, now is that your $100 dollar bill or is that Mao’s $100 dollar bill who the hell knows.

    And that is basically what is going on with the chamber, they have a large account that they receive foreign money into along with domestic American money and this same account is used for the funding of campaign ad’s to the benefit of republicans.

  • Comm_reply
    luminous 10/13/2010 3:56pm

    Because its true. Money is what is called fungible, I will illustrate.

    We have 3 people, one holding a hat, Mao Zedong, and any random American(could be you =p). Now you and Mao are holding $100 dollar bills and you each place your $100 dollar bills in the hat. The guy holding the hat shakes it a bit, twirls it around a bit, says some magical words, and presto pulls out a $100 dollar bill, now is that your $100 dollar bill or is that Mao’s $100 dollar bill who the hell knows.

    And that is basically what is going on with the chamber, they have a large account that they receive foreign money into along with domestic American money and this same account is used for the funding of campaign ad’s to the benefit of republicans.

  • Comm_reply
    luminous 10/13/2010 3:56pm

    Because its true. Money is what is called fungible, I will illustrate.

    We have 3 people, one holding a hat, Mao Zedong, and any random American(could be you =p). Now you and Mao are holding $100 dollar bills and you each place your $100 dollar bills in the hat. The guy holding the hat shakes it a bit, twirls it around a bit, says some magical words, and presto pulls out a $100 dollar bill, now is that your $100 dollar bill or is that Mao’s $100 dollar bill who the hell knows.

    And that is basically what is going on with the chamber, they have a large account that they receive foreign money into along with domestic American money and this same account is used for the funding of campaign ad’s to the benefit of republicans.

  • Comm_reply
    UniqName 10/14/2010 11:25am

    I concede that it may be that overtly left-leaning pieces to grab my attention more than others, but it seems that lately the balance has shifted noticeably.

  • Comm_reply
    UniqName 10/14/2010 11:34am
    Link Reply
    + -1

    I remain confident in the accuracy of OpenCongress.org fact checks, but share some mild concern as to a percieved shift to the left in the choice of things to cover.

    The fact that they are using OpenCongress data to further this misrepresentative end certainly adds a relevant perspective to the article. For whatever it’s worth, noting as much might have gone a fair way in easing the questions of some as to the non-partisanship of the site as the story has a direct connection to the site itself.

  • Smith_Satellite 10/13/2010 10:10am
    Link Reply
    + -1

    I tend to agree with molinechuck. I’ve been a member of Open Congress for about six months now and I’ve noticed a partisan nature of the blog posts. While I agree that any political group that utilizes statistics to misrepresent a situation is erroneous, it’s equally erroneous for Open Congress to only discuss one party’s misbehavior. If nonpartisan is the goal of Open Congress, then an example from each side should be utilized. This also raises the question of how “fair” the data found on Open Congress is.

    I also feel that using the word empirical in this context isn’t accurate. While this may be semantics, empirical represents a scientific and objective perspective. I believe that statistical data is a better term, as it better defines what is being discussed. Empirical data can not be misinterpreted whereas statistical data is dependent upon its comparison values.

  • beenblue 10/13/2010 4:03pm

    If one, wanted to see clearly what the left and the right were doing simultaneously, you would have to be gifted with Marty Feldman eyes, for I believe it was his right eye that looked as if it was leaving his skull. Keep up the good work Donny, the left is so ho-hum.

  • womthang 10/16/2010 4:19am

    I have to agree, I dont post much but I read alot and it seems most of the blogs have taken a distinct left turn.

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