It has become the most-repeated statistic of North Carolina’s tight U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican challenger Thom Tillis.
“Kay Hagan votes with Barack Obama 96 percent of the time,” a Tillis ad intones. “I assume you’re proud you voted with (Obama) 96 percent of the time,” Tillis said at a debate last week. Hardly a day goes by without the 96 percent figure popping up.
But as Mark Twain said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics. Meaning, a number by itself doesn’t tell you much.
So what about that 96 percent? I wondered: Is it true? And what’s behind it?
Most were nominees
The figure is true, as far as it goes.
Congressional Quarterly, a Washington insider publication, tracks how each senator and representative votes on issues on which President Obama has taken a stand.
In 2013, CQ identified 108 such Senate votes. Hagan supported the president’s position 104 times and opposed it four times.
Case closed, right? Yes, but all kinds of details and context are missing.
Of the 108 votes in question, 71 were Obama’s nominations for administration and judicial vacancies. Most of these are obscure names in minor positions, the kind on which the Senate has deferred to the president for centuries. Hagan, like every Democrat, voted in favor of Obama’s nominees. The vast majority of these were not controversial and many attracted substantial Republican support as well. One was former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx, who won unanimous confirmation as transportation secretary. The list includes people like Ernest Moniz, confirmed in a 97-0 vote to be energy secretary.
So if Hagan had opposed Obama on every single vote that wasn’t confirming an appointee, she could still be portrayed as standing with Obama 66 percent of the time.
The meat of the matter
The other 37 votes are where most of the meat is. Those involved things like gun control, immigration policy, domestic spending bills, student loans and aid to Egypt.
Hagan backed Obama 33 of 37 times. Several of these, though, attracted substantial Republican support. A bill setting federal student loan interest rates passed 81-18, with every Republican but one supporting it. A bill that kept the government open also passed 81-18. Legislation to stabilize the helium market passed 97-2. Even the farm bill, including food stamps, split Republicans 25-18. An immigration overhaul attracted 14 of 46 Republican votes.
On many other votes, Hagan was hardly an outlier by supporting Obama’s stance. A bill to provide help to communities devastated by superstorm Sandy passed with Democrats supporting it 52-0. A bill to continue funding the transportation and housing departments had 51-0 support among Democrats.
All four of Hagan’s votes against Obama’s preference came on tough, controversial, closely divided issues. She voted against two gun control bills that Obama favored, one regulating high-capacity magazines and one regulating assault weapons. In both cases, she came down with most Republicans and against most Democrats.
Hagan also sided with most Republicans in a vote to allow sequestration spending cuts to kick in. And she voted with Republicans against an Obama effort to make it easier to transfer detainees out of the prison at Guantanamo Bay.
Others even more loyal
A couple of other pieces of context:
• The 96 percent figure makes Hagan one of the Democrats least loyal to Obama. Only four Democrats supported him less, and 31 supported him 99 or 100 percent of the time.
• The National Journal named Hagan the nation’s most moderate senator, based on her voting record.
• The 96 percent figure is for one year, 2013; the number was lower in previous years.
What would Tillis number be?
Tillis is right that Hagan voted with Obama 96 percent of the time last year. But that 96 percent is comprised of supporting the president’s nominees, supporting him on bills that attracted substantial Republican support, and supporting him on bills that were unanimous or nearly so among Democrats. In four instances on controversial high-profile votes, she bucked her party and the president.
It’s an easy shot for Tillis, because a similar attack could be made on every Democratic senator in the nation. If he wins and a Republican president wins in 2016, will his percentage be much lower?