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On The Issues Shares Americans Elect Candidate Rating Methodology, Grading Obama in Bizarre Fashion

A private company called On The Issues has been assigned by Americans Elect to the task of rating certain 2012 presidential contenders over others, and the results are currently casting favor upon its Top Nine ranked contenders, each one a Republican. After some delay, On The Issues has released its methodology to reporter Jonathan Tilove, who has in turn kindly shared it with me. You can read it here.

Whatever On The Issues’ methodology is in its work for Americans Elect, it’s leading to some pretty screwy results. Check out, for instance, President Barack Obama’s rating for Americans Elect. He gets a 67% grade with Americans Elect because of his supposed alignment with some unspecified ideal position on nine questions. The first two of them are:

Question 1 answer D on Economy:

When you think about the US budget deficit, which of the following solutions is closest to your opinion?
A: Cutting existing programs
B: More spending cuts than tax increases (mix of both solutions)
C: More tax increases than spending cuts (mix of both solutions)
D: Raising Taxes

Candidate indicated ‘D’ on 7 out of 15 statements.


Question 2 answer A on Energy:

When you think about America’s energy needs, which of the following solutions comes closest to your opinion?
A: Strong investment in renewable energy like wind and solar
B: More drilling than investment in renewables (mix of both solutions)
C: More investment in renewable than drilling (mix of both solutions)
D: Strong focus on offshore drilling and allowing drilling in federal lands including wildlife reserves
E: Unsure
Candidate indicated ‘A’ on 10 out of 22 statements.

To assign Barack Obama position D on Question 1 is nothing short of bizarre, as you know if you’ve been paying any attention. Obama’s actual position is pretty clearly ‘B’ or ‘C’. There are the words of his administration to back that up — no fewer than 38,900 references to spending cuts by the Obama White House. There are his own remarks as President, such as these from July of 2011:

Essentially what we had offered Speaker Boehner was over a trillion dollars in cuts to discretionary spending, both domestic and defense. We then offered an additional $650 billion in cuts to entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security…. What is absolutely true is we wanted more revenue than they had initially offered. But as you’ll see, the spending cuts that we were prepared to engage in were at least as significant as the spending cuts that you’ve seen in a whole range of bipartisan proposals, and we had basically agreed within $10 billion, $20 billion — we were within that range.

Or this press conference:

We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner, more effective, more efficient, and give taxpayers a greater bang for their buck. That includes defense spending. That includes health spending. It includes some programs that I like very much, and we — be nice to have, but that we can’t afford right now….

I think that there are a lot of well-meaning business people out there who recognize the need to make something happen. But I think that they’ve been hesitant to be as straightforward as I’d like when it says, this is what a balanced package means. It means that we’ve got some spending cuts; it means that we’ve got some increased revenue; and it means that we’re taking on some of the drivers of our long-term debt and deficits.

Some tax increases, some spending cuts. But somehow, On The Issues grades Barack Obama’s position on as simply “Raising Taxes.” To say that’s odd is an understatement, considering that — as a reporter pointed out to him this summer — Obama’s proposed budget deal would have cut $4 in spending for every $1 in in tax hikes. It’s more than odd. It’s super-wrong.

On energy policy, On The Issues grades the President as being purely in support of renewables. But “C: More investment in renewable than drilling (mix of both solutions)” would be a clearly more accurate answer, because Barack Obama clearly supports drilling. See here and here and here and here for substantiation of that point. It’s not a quibble — again On The Issues gets Obama’s position just plain wrong. And once you notice that answer is wrong, then clearly On The Issues got Question #8 wrong:

Question 8 answer D on Environment:

Which of the following statements comes closest to your personal view?
A: Natural resources exist for the benefit of humanity
B: Natural resources exist for the benefit of humanity, but should be somewhat protected
C: Natural resources should be mostly protected, but also exist for the benefit of humanity
D: Natural resources exist on their own and should be completely protected
E: Unsure
Candidate indicated ‘D’ on 6 out of 9 statements.

If Barack Obama’s in favor of oil drilling onshore and offshore (which he clearly is), then he can’t be taking a position that “Natural resources exist on their own [as opposed to what? as figments of our imagination?] and should be completely protected”. A more accurate read on Obama’s position would be ‘C’ (and some cynics might say ‘B’). That makes for 3 out of 9 answers that are factually off base.

Maybe it’s just a big coincidence, but I notice that each of those factual errors places Barack Obama further to the “extreme” on a policy point — and it’s just those “extremes” that Americans Elect is supposed to fix with its “bridging the vital center” candidate. Americans Elect wants to run its own presidential candidate in 2012, and it doesn’t have a reason to exist unless Barack Obama can be characterized as an “extremist.”

There are more problems than that. Compare the On the Issues notes on rating Barack Obama to the Americans Elect rating of Barack Obama and then back to the methodology On The Issues presents for generating ratings. Americans Elect — which explicitly declares it relies on On The Issues for its information on Obama — rates Obama’s top priority as “Education.” On The Issues says in its methodology that the top priority will be the one a candidate talks about the most, generating the most citations:

We weight the questions based on the relative number of citations for each question. If a candidate talks a lot about a particular issue, we include more citations on that issue; and hence that question gets weighted more.

You might question that standard, but let’s just go with it for now. Look on Obama’s scoring page: On The Issues says there are 15 statements Barack Obama makes regarding Education — in a tie with Social Issues (15 statements) and Economy (15 statements) and less than Immigration (19 statements) and Energy (22 statements). So according to the methodology Barack Obama’s profile should declare that Energy, not Education is his top priority.

And wait again — it gets weirder. Although On The Issues says there are 15 statements Barack Obama makes regarding Education, it only lists 11 of them. The pattern of underreporting holds for all of the supposed statements On The Issues is counting up. In every category, there are fewer listed statements than On The Issues counts. This discrepancy is not explained in On The Issues’ methodology.

I wonder what would happen to Barack Obama’s rating as a candidate at Americans Elect if the clear errors in reading and scoring Barack Obama’s policy positions were fixed. Would his match score rise? Would Obama’s rating become comparable to the rating score for the Americans Elect Select Nine — the 9 Republican presidential candidates who’ve gotten Americans Elect top ranking and special billing? If it did, what argument could Americans Elect make for replacing Barack Obama with someone who was less “extreme?”

I can’t answer this question for you — because Americans Elect is still keeping its full key for grading presidential contenders a closely-guarded secret. What “On The Issues” has shared is just a general approach, without indicating the “right answers” as Americans Elect wants to figure them.

What does Americans Elect have to hide? Wouldn’t this be a good time for Americans Elect to come clean and share all the specifics on its presidential candidate rating system? It would certainly be good for the American people. It might not be so good for Americans Elect.

P.S. All this rating of some presidential contenders above others and giving its Select Nine top billing with big pictures and glowing numbers — it’s against the Americans Elect corporate bylaws, which expressly prohibit Americans Elect from acting or communicating in favor of or opposition to any candidate for President.

4 thoughts on “On The Issues Shares Americans Elect Candidate Rating Methodology, Grading Obama in Bizarre Fashion”

  1. Richard Winger says:

    I commend Irregular Times for this analytical and careful reporting.

    1. Jim Cook says:


      Thanks. You’re very kind.

      I should say (because I know you believe in ballot access, and I do too) that when I write things like “if the scores for Obama were less ‘extreme’ then Americans Elect wouldn’t have a reason to exist” I don’t mean that Americans Elect wouldn’t have a right to exist, and I also don’t mean more broadly that third parties shouldn’t exist. By all means, I love third parties — especially the ones that are transparent and upfront and inclusive regarding the public, as opposed to secretive and sneaky and exclusive.

      I mean something more limited: that because Americans Elect has positioned itself as “centrist” and “bridging the vital center,” it doesn’t have much of an ecological space unless it can characterize Barack Obama as something other than a “centrist” who takes on a lot of GOP positions as he jettisons Democratic ones.

  2. tiradefaction says:

    So, as usual, the outspoken (perhaps at this point, professional?) “centrists” are continuing to try to redefine Obama as some solid leftist/liberal/whatever. Laughable, but predictable. Your breakdown is quite good at dispelling that myth, at least on the issues brought forth.

    I personally don’t get this renewed attempt at creating an (rather ironically) ideologically “pure” centrist vehicle. Centrism and moderation are *methods* of governing (and an approach I quite appreciate), not ends to themselves. As an ends to itself, I think these “centrists” are missing the point…

    Anyway, great reporting as usual, keep up the good work guys.

  3. E.Hatt-Swank says:

    Wow! This is fantastic stuff. I found my way here via a piece about Americans Elect and I am quite impressed by your thorough and logical analysis.

    Like many others, in general I am sympathetic to the idea of expanding the election process beyond the two-party system. After just a few minutes of looking into Americans Elect, it was pretty clear that AE’s definition of the term “centrist” is a little fishy and that they are playing (intentionally or not) into the long-range strategy of shifting the definition of the center further and further to the right. Not surprising at all to learn that people like Doug Schoen are involved. That’s a deal-breaker right there for me.

    I particularly like your conclusions about AE’s need to distance itself from Barack Obama, who actually fits the typical definition of centrism quite well. Others have written lately about “centrist” pundits who bemoan the lack of a real centrist political leader, and then proceed to list out their preferred policy solutions, which are very similar to those supported by none other than Barack Obama. It’s very strange.

    Please keep up the nice work. I’ll be reading this site regularly now and passing it on. Thanks.

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