John R. Lott Jr.: McCain in the Middle?

Just where does John McCain fit in the political spectrum?

While conservative talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh's paint McCain as a moderate, some in the mainstream media have begun arguing that McCain is a strong conservative. This debate could well determine who votes for him in November.

Libby Quaid, with the Associated Press, claims that people are misled in believing McCain is a political independent. His article on Monday argued that despite how McCain "antagonizes fellow Republicans and likes to work with Democrats. ... a different label applies to his actual record: conservative."

But Quaid’s analysis faces several significant problems. While focusing on McCain’s votes on abortion, gay rights and gun control, no explanation is offered for why certain votes are examined and others are not, and she fails to compare how McCain ranks relative to other senators.

There are a number of organizations on the left and right that evaluate congressmen and senators on how they vote each year. These conservative and liberal groups pick the votes that their fellow liberals or conservatives most care about and figure out what position best supports their own views.

Two well-known organizations that rank congressional voting are the American Conservative Union on the right and the Americans for Democratic Action on the left. There also is the League of Conservation Voters, which ranks politicians from a liberal environmentalist position.

These three rankings from 2001 to 2006 paint a fairly similar picture, putting McCain to the left of most Republicans and to the right of most Democrats in the Senate, though usually much closer to the average Republican.

— The American Conservative Union finds that the average Republican senator voted conservatively 86 percent of the time, and that the average Democrat voted conservatively 14 percent of the time. McCain voted conservatively 73 percent of the time.

— Despite being at the opposite end of the political spectrum, Americans for Democratic Action put McCain in the same place. The average Republican senator voted liberally 13 percent of the time, the average Democrat 89 percent of the time. McCain voted liberally twice as frequently as the average Republican, voting liberally 26 percent of the time.

According to the League of Conservation Voters, John McCain is the ultimate centrist. While the average Republican supported liberal environmentalist positions 13 percent of the time and the average Democrat supported them 76 percent of the time, McCain’s 44 percent put him right in the middle.

Another way to look at these numbers is to see how many of the other 99 senators voted more conservatively than McCain has. In 2006, the American Conservative Union ranked McCain as the 47th most conservative member of the Senate.

Similarly, the Americans for Democratic Action had McCain tied for being the 44th most conservative member of the Senate. The League of Conservation Voters had him tied for 51st.

What issues put McCain well to the left of the average Senate Republican? The American Conservative Union lists a number of specific votes on which he voted differently than most other Republicans:

— Taxes: opposed elimination of the marriage penalty, opposed lower capital gains tax rates, opposed eliminating the inheritance tax, opposed lower personal income tax rates.

— Environment: opposed drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, in Alaska, supported compliance with the Kyoto global warming treaty, supported requiring that U.S. businesses reduce "greenhouse gas" emissions to levels produced in 2000, favored stricter mercury emission rules for existing electricity-generating plants, supported stricter miles-per-gallon standards for cars.

— Consistently supported stricter campaign finance regulations.

— Health care: opposed medical savings account demonstration program, opposed letting health insurance participants agree not to sue insurers in exchange for lower premium rates.

— Immigration reform: supported letting illegal aliens claim Social Security benefits for the years they worked before being granted a valid Social Security card, supported granting amnesty to illegal aliens.

— Other regulations: supported penalizing states that did not get over 90 percent of drivers to use their seat belts, voted to mandate that handguns could be sold only with locks.

A number of these votes were very closely contested. In some, McCain’s vote lead to a 50-50 tie in the Senate that required Vice President Cheney to break it.

Surely, McCain is not anywhere near as liberal as the typical Democratic senator, but interest group rankings from both the left and right find that McCain is to the left of the vast majority of the rest of the Republicans in the Senate.

All three rankings examined here find that there are about as many senators to McCain's right as there are to his left.

*John Lott, is the author of "Freedomnomics" and a senior research scientist at the University of Maryland.