A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

NRCC Overstates Dems’ Voting Record with Pelosi

And Democrats spin the voting data, too.


Summary

A number of new TV ads by the National Republican Congressional Committee purport to tell us how often a Democratic incumbent voted with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. But the ads overstate the incumbents’ support for Pelosi’s agenda.

The NRCC uses the Washington Post vote database that gauges "party loyalty." The NRCC ads equate "party loyalty" to "voting with Pelosi." But the two are not the same (and we will explain exactly why in our analysis below). Using the "head-to-head voting comparison" tool on OpenCongress.org, we compared the votes of six Democrats featured in NRCC attack ads with Pelosi’s votes and found the Republican claims were inflated in every case.

In an NRCC ad called "How Desperate Is Lincoln Davis," for example, the NRCC says: "Davis voted with Nancy Pelosi 94 percent of the time." That’s wrong. He voted 79 percent of the time with Pelosi, according to OpenCongress.org.

Democrats, too, manipulate voting data. Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia — who has been a victim of the NRCC’s misleading ad campaign — says in a new TV ad, "Jim Marshall doesn’t support Nancy Pelosi. He voted the same as Republican leaders 65 percent of the time." But that figure comes from an analysis conducted by the campaign, and it covers only this year’s votes. Since January 2007, when Pelosi became speaker, OpenCongress.org shows Marshall voted 56 percent of the time with Republican Leader John Boehner. That’s not that impressive when you consider Democratic Whip Jim Clyburn, who is responsible for getting Democrats to vote the party line, voted with Boehner 44 percent of the time.

Analysis

It has become common this election year for Republicans to tie Democratic candidates to Pelosi, and lately we’re seeing more than a few Democrats seeking to distance themselves from her. In doing so, though, both sides are misusing voting data.

How Desperate Is the NRCC?

In an ad called "How Desperate Is Lincoln Davis," the NRCC says: "Davis voted with Pelosi 94 percent of the time." That’s wrong.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "How Desperate Is Lincoln Davis?"

Announcer: How desperate would you have to be to attack someone’s family? That’s what Lincoln Davis is doing. He’s desperate to distract the public from seeing his votes since Obama became president. Davis voted for Obama’s stimulus plan that let your tax dollars go to foreign corporations to create jobs overseas. Davis voted with Nancy Pelosi 94 percent of the time. How can we stop Obama and Pelosi? You have to replace Lincoln Davis.

[/TET]

The NRCC ad, which first aired Oct. 13, cites the Washington Post Votes Database to support its claim. But the Post doesn’t compare how Davis voted with Pelosi. The number the NRCC cites is the percentage Davis voted with a majority of his party — which the Post calls "party loyalty."

The paper explains on its website that its database contains "every vote in the United States Congress." It determines party loyalty based on "the percentage of votes on which a lawmaker agrees with the position taken by a majority of his or her party members." The party loyalty numbers are for the current Congress, which began January 2009, and cover more than 1,500 votes — including a bill that would name a post office in Wisconsin after Captain Rhett W. Schiller. That counts toward the "party loyalty" rating, as do any number of similar feel-good votes to honor the 111th Fighter Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard or to declare September National Child Awareness Month. (All those votes count toward the Republican Party loyalty measurement, too, since a majority of Republicans also supported them.)

A more accurate measure of how Davis voted with Pelosi can be found on OpenCongress.org, which has a "head to head voting comparison" tool. The Davis-Pelosi comparison shows, as of Oct. 14:

OpenCongress.org: Lincoln Davis and Nancy Pelosi have voted together 238 times on roll call votes since January, 2007 in votes where neither abstained, representing a voting similarity of 79%.

So, Davis voted with Pelosi 79 percent of the time — not 94 percent.

Why is there such a big difference? Simple: The pool of votes is much smaller when comparing Davis’ votes to Pelosi’s votes. By tradition, speakers don’t vote on everything. Pelosi largely limits her votes to substantive bills, skipping the less controversial or less important bills. Davis and Pelosi voted only 238 times on the same piece of legislation since January 2007, even though there were more than 3,400 votes cast in 2007, 2008, 2009 and so far in 2010.

Using the Post database produces a high percentage of "party loyalty," because it contains every bill — even those noncontroversial bills, like the Captain Rhett W. Schiller Post Office bill. Using the OpenCongress.org database — which counts only the votes Pelosi actually cast — produces a lower percentage because those were, by and large, the bills that would have divided party members.

Wrong Again and Again

The NRCC ad against Davis is one of several released in recent days that criticize Democratic incumbents. We found five ads that claimed the Democrat voted more than 90 percent of the time with Pelosi. Actually, none of them voted 90 percent or more of the time with the speaker.

One ad — called "Empty Words," which began airing Oct. 11 — shows Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin of South Dakota talking about being an "independent voice" for the state. The ad then flashes this message on the screen: "But she voted with Nancy Pelosi 91 percent of the time."

Wrong again. The OpenCongress.org site shows she voted with Pelosi 81 percent of the time.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "Empty Words"

Stephanie Herseth Sandlin: I’m as determined to be an independent voice for South Dakota today as I was then. It’s why I voted against the bailouts and a trillion dollar health care plan. I’m Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and I approve this message because a lot’s changed since then.

Announcer: Yes, she’s changed. And Washington’s changed her. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

[/TET]

"Who’s Chris Carney Working For?" — an NRCC ad that first aired Oct. 10 — opens by asking: "Is Nancy Pelosi right 91 percent of the time? That’s how often Chris Carney voted with her."

Wrong. But not by much. OpenCongress.org says the Pennsylvania Democrat voted with Pelosi 84 percent of the time.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "Who’s Chris Carney Working For?"

Announcer: Is Nancy Pelosi right over 90 percent of the time? That’s how often Chris Carney voted with her — including the 800 billion dollar failed stimulus. Since they passed it, Pennsylvania unemployment hit a 26-year high. While the stimulus created renewable energy jobs in China, it created mountains of new debt back here. Chris Carney, staggering debt here, sending jobs to China. Who’s he working for?

[/TET]

"You already know that Ben Chandler voted with Nancy Pelosi 94 percent of the time." So says the NRCC ad "What Ben Chandler’s Votes Really Mean," which began airing Oct. 9. The actual number, says OpenCongress.org, is 89 percent.

As with Carney, it’s not off by much — but it’s still wrong. And the higher the number the more damaging it is for the Kentucky Democrat and other vulnerable Democrats in competitive races.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "What Ben Chandler’s Votes Really Mean"

Announcer: You already know Ben Chandler voted with Nancy Pelosi 94 percent of the time. But what’s that mean for individual Kentuckians? First it means $43,000 — every American’s share of the national debt. Even hers. Chandler’s vote raised the debt limit to 14 trillion. And for her career, Chandler’s energy tax vote could cost Kentucky 35,000 jobs. Ben Chandler’s loyalty to Pelosi is costly for Kentuckians.

[/TET]

On Oct. 8, the NRCC began airing a commercial in Colorado called "Betsy Markey Voted for It All." The ad displays these words: "Markey votes with Pelosi 94 percent of all votes." But the Colorado Democrat voted with Pelosi 82 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress.org.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "Betsy Markey Voted For It All"

Announcer: In Washington, one party has absolute power. Out of control spending, national energy tax, government takeover of health care — and Betsy Markey voted for it all. Markey votes the Pelosi party-line on spending, on our economy, on 94 percent of all the votes she cast. Too far, too fast — in the absolute wrong direction. Put the brakes on Pelosi. Replace Betsy Markey.

[/TET]

In an ad it calls "Jim Marshall’s Not Looking Out for Main Street," the NRCC says this about the Georgia Democrat and Pelosi: "Jim voted with her almost 90 percent of the time." The ad, which first aired Oct. 3, flashes these words on the screen: "Voted with Pelosi 88 percent."

But that’s not close to the truth. He voted with Pelosi 66 percent of the time, according to OpenCongress.org.

[TET ]

NRCC TV Ad: "Jim Marshall’s Not Looking Out for Main Street"

Announcer: Times are tough in Macon. So, Jim Marshall hit the road. He went to Washington — where he met Nancy Pelosi. Jim voted with her almost 90 percent of the time. He even voted with her on the Wall Street Bailout. And then collected thousands from the same Wall Street banks he helped out. Jim Marshall, voting with Pelosi — looking out for Wall Street, instead of Main street. The National Republican Congressional Committee is responsible for the content of this advertising.

[/TET]

Democrats Cherry-Pick, Too

The Democrats are just as quick to misrepresent voting data.

[TET ]

Friends of Jim Marshall TV Ad: "Long Way"

Announcer: Georgia is a long way from San Francisco, and Jim Marshall is a long way from Nancy Pelosi. Jim Marshall doesn’t support Nancy Pelosi. He voted the same as Republican leaders 65 percent of the time. Jim Marshall worked and voted against Pelosi’s trillion-dollar health care bill because we can’t afford it. And Jim Marshall is endorsed by the NRA, Right to Life and the Chamber of Commerce. They wouldn’t have anything to do with a Nancy Pelosi supporter. [/TET]

Marshall, a four-term Democratic incumbent from Georgia, has a history of voting against his party on major bills — such as the health care bill. The OpenCongress.org website shows that he voted with Pelosi only 66 percent of the time. Yet, as we said, he was attacked by the NRCC for voting with Pelosi "nearly 90 percent of the time."

To counter the NRCC ad and distance himself from Pelosi, Marshall began airing a TV ad on Oct. 13 called "Long Way." It opens with an image of young hippies wearing loose fitting clothes and colorful headbands, while the announcer says: "Georgia is a long way from San Francisco, and Jim Marshall is a long way from Nancy Pelosi."

It goes on to say that Marshall "voted the same as Republican leaders 65 percent of the time." That’s not a figure we saw on OpenCongress.org, which put the number at 56 percent. So, we called the Marshall campaign and talked to spokesman Doug Moore. Moore said the campaign did its own analysis of 2010 votes cast by Marshall and House Minority Leader John Boehner.

In an e-mail, Moore wrote: "They have 504 common votes, 329 together and 236 against." Okay, but why look at just 2010 when there is already information readily available on OpenCongress.org that goes back to the start of Pelosi’s tenure as speaker in 2007? He said the campaign wanted to present the "most recent numbers." He defended them as "fair, accurate and true." But during our interview, Moore made two points that could equally apply to the Marshall campaign:

  • The NRCC used voting data to make Marshall’s record of voting with Pelosi look worse than it actually is, Moore said. (But the Marshall campaign used the voting data to make Marshall’s record of voting with Boehner appear better than it is.)
  • Moore also told us that the "vast majority of the votes are irrelevant." (That’s our point when comparing Marshall’s votes with Boehner’s. The proof, as we said earlier, is that Democratic Whip Clyburn voted 44 percent of the time with Boehner since January 2007.)

Bottom line: Voters beware. Candidates, parties and independent groups tailor voting numbers to strengthen their message — and ignore those numbers that would undercut it.

— by Eugene Kiely and Melissa Siegel

Sources

"Votes Database." Washington Post. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Votes Database. 111th Congress/House/Members voting with their own party." Washington Post. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Votes Database. 111th Congress/House/2nd session/Vote 522." Washington Post. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Votes Database. 111th Congress/House/2nd session/Vote 460." Washington Post. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Votes Database. 111th Congress/House/2nd session/Vote 450." Washington Post. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Lincoln Davis-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. "Roll Call Votes. 110th Congress, 1st Session." Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives."Roll Call Votes. 110th Congress, 2nd Session." Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives."Roll Call Votes. 111th Congress, 1st Session." Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

Office of the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives. "Roll Call Votes. 111th Congress, 2nd Session." Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Stephanie Herseth Sandlin-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Christopher Carney-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Ben Chandler-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Betsy Markey-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

"Head-to-Head Voting Comparison: Jim Marshall-Nancy Pelosi." opencongress.org. Accessed 14 Oct 2010.

Moore, Doug, spokesman, Friends of Jim Marshall. Interview with FactCheck.org. 14 Oct 2010.

Moore, Doug, spokesman, Friends of Jim Marshall. E-mail to FactCheck.org. 14 Oct 2010.