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Coleman: Maverick or McSame?

John Coleman is a the Chair of the Department Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Joe Biden has supported President Bush 70% of the time. You may not have heard this mentioned at the Democratic National Convention or in Barack Obama's acceptance speech.

The Obama team--and Obama himself--has been working hard to link John McCain to George W. Bush by noting that he "votes with Bush 90% of the time." And if 90% isn't enough Bush for you, Democrats note, McCain supported the president 95% of the time in 2007. One Obama ad even lists this voting record as the first plank in McCain's economic program.

The figures being used by Democrats are presidential support scores computed by CQ Weekly, a leading weekly magazine monitoring events in Washington. The score is based entirely on recorded roll-call votes  in Congress. CQ identifies those votes where the president has taken a clear stand and then records whether a senator or representative voted in the president's preferred direction. The votes need not be key on the president's agenda or be anything the president encouraged Congress to do--they are simply cases where CQ has determined a clear presidential position. In the Senate, the president's nominations, which are usually noncontroversial, are a sizable portion of the votes used by CQ to compile its support score. In 2007, nominations were 30% of the votes used by CQ to calculate presidential support in the Senate.

As the chart below shows, John McCain has indeed voted consistent with the preferences of President Bush about 90% of the time on these presidential support roll-calls. This has been roughly the same level of support as the average Republican senator.

McCain's presidential support level was 95% in 2007, but this is somewhat misleading. Because he was running for president, McCain was present for only 38 of the 97 roll calls CQ used to calculate the presidential support score. There were 442 roll-call votes in total in the Senate in 2007. Looking at only those votes for which both McCain and Obama were present that year--33 votes--McCain's support score was 94% while Obama's was 48%. CQ also noted in a recent post that McCain, Obama, and Biden voted on less than half the presidential support votes from January through August 2008.

Using the same figures the Obama campaign has used to tie John McCain to President Bush, Biden was a 77% supporter of President Bush's positions in 2002, 70% in 2004, and over a 50% supporter of Bush in 4 of the president's 7 full years in office. Up through the August 2008 congressional recess, Biden had supported Bush's positions 52% of the time since January 2001. Obama himself supported the president's positions just under 50% in 2006 and 40% since he joined the Senate in January 2005.

It is doubtful that many Americans hearing the Obama team's 90% charge against McCain realize that Obama and Biden themselves have supported the president anywhere from 33 to 77% of the time during his term.

In addition to linking McCain to Bush, another goal of the Obama campaign in using the 90% support figure is to blunt McCain's claim to be a maverick who shows independence from his party. Establishing McCain's independent credentials was a major theme at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night.

Given that even Obama and Biden sometimes had relatively high levels of support for Bush, a better measure of independence than the presidential support score would be to look at the party support score, also calculated by CQ Weekly. Looking at "party votes"--those roll-call votes on which a majority of Republicans oppose a majority of Democrats--CQ calculates whether a senator voted with his party's majority or against it. The party support score is the percentage of times a senator voted with his party majority on party votes. There were 266 party votes in the Senate in 2007, or 60% of all Senate roll-call votes.

Looking at his party support scores during the Bush presidency, the chart below shows that McCain regularly was less supportive of his party than the average Republican senator. His voting in 2007, when McCain was frequently out of Washington and missing more roll-call votes than usual (he voted on 48% of the 266 party votes), is an exception.  

McCain's professed independent streak is supported by these data. About 75 to 85% of the time, McCain voted with his party's majority. More frequently than the average Republican, however, McCain voted with the Democratic majority rather than the Republican majority on votes that put the two parties on opposite sides.

Obama and Biden, on the other hand, have both been more likely than the typical Democratic senator to vote with the Democratic party position. In each of his three full years, Obama voted over 95% of the time with the Democratic majority on party votes. McCain reached 90% only once, in 2007.Biden's party support level has hovered between about 90 to 95%. From these data, McCain can more credibly make the claim that he is willing to buck his party. He has voted against his party majority about 15 to 25% of the time across the Bush years, compared to about 3% for Obama and 5 to 10% for Biden.

I've plotted these data in a different format in the chart below. Here, zero on the left axis indicates the baseline party support level of the average senator for each party. I then plot the difference between the average Republican senator's party support and McCain's, and the average Democratic senator's support and Obama's and Biden's. During the Bush years, McCain was usually about 5 to 10 percentage points less likely to vote with his party than the average Republican senator. Obama's party support level was about 10 points higher than the average Democratic senator, while Biden was usually between about 5 to 12 points more likely to vote with the party majority than the average Democrat.

These numbers burnish McCain's independent credentials, at least compared to his two senatorial rivals. But they also point to one of the key dilemmas of the McCain candidacy. To weaken McCain's maverick image, Democrats can tie McCain to Bush by emphasizing McCain's presidential support percentage, while not mentioning the sometimes high Bush support level of his Democratic opponents themselves. McCain can respond by noting that, compared to his rivals, his party support percentage shows he is less likely to vote along party lines and has more of an independent streak. Emphasizing that streak may endear him to independents and some Democrats, but it is of course one of the chief aspects of McCain's legislative life that has historically created problems for him within his own party and among party activists. It is one of the tasks of the Republican convention to convince Republicans of the virtue of that independent streak as a matter of character, even if they disagree with McCain on policy particulars.