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What Chance of Change Is Enough?—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on Sept. 2, 2008.

What Chance of Change Is Enough?
By Ian Ayres ’86

Obama in his acceptance speech included the lines:

But the record’s clear: John McCain has voted with George Bush 90 percent of the time. Senator McCain likes to talk about judgment, but really, what does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time? I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to take a 10 percent chance on change.

So here’s a pop quiz: what percent of the time did Obama vote with George Bush? It would be kind of embarrassing for Obama to use this statistic if Obama or Biden voted with the Bush administration too often.

The same study by Congressional Quarterly estimates that Obama voted with Bush during the Bush era 40 percent of the time. (The study limited itself to votes which the Bush administration had taken a clear position on before the vote.) Obama’s percentage was the eighth lowest in the Senate. But by Obama’s reckoning, I guess a 60 percent chance of change is enough. Or maybe even a 48 percent chance of change is enough (Biden voted with Bush 52 percent of the time).

The C.Q. web tool is pretty cool because it lets you slice the data for the House and Senate in lots of different ways. The study also analyzed a “party unity” percentage. When a majority of Republicans voted one way and a majority of Democrats voted another way, what percentage of the time did a particular senator break with his or her party?

Obama’s party unity score during the Bush era was 96 percent (ninth highest among Democrats). McCain’s party unity score was 81 percent (the sixth lowest among Republicans).