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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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