Our new boss’s politics, in one chart

August 8, 2013

The fact that this picture was allowed to go up is all the proof you need that Jeff Bezos isn't interfering with coverage. Right? (Victoria Bonn-Meuser/European Pressphoto Agency)

Friends describe Jeff Bezos — who bought the Washington Post on Monday — as a libertarian, which is borne out by his donations to back same-sex marriage and oppose an income tax in Washington state. But how does he stack up when you compare him to other billionaires — or even to big-name politicians?

Political scientists Adam Bonica (Stanford), Nolan McCarty (Princeton), Keith T. Poole (Georgia) and Howard Rosenthal (NYU) took it upon themselves to find out. They use an ideological scale going from -2 (the most liberal score possible) to 2 (the most conservative score possible). It works similarly to the DW-NOMINATE scale that Poole and Rosenthal pioneered, and which has become the standard for comparing members of a given Congress to each other, ideology-wise. Unlike DW-NOMINATE, which has a dimension for economic issues and another for race and other regional issues, the scale used in the Bonica et al paper has only one dimension, encapsulating all issues.

By looking at which candidates people donated to, Bonica and his coauthors are able to estimate those donors' views, whether they're politicians donating through a PAC, or individual donating amounts small or large.

The light line shows the distribution of viewpoints for small donors, or those who give $500 or less in an election cycle. The dark line is the distribution for donors who fall into the top 0.01 percent of donors, by amount donated. The dash line is the distribution for donors who are either wealthy enough to make the Forbes 400 or are board members/executives for Fortune 500 companies. As you'd expect, the latter, richest group is more right-tilting than small donors, but it also includes more moderates than the small donor group.

But the really fun part are the estimates of specific billionaires, which you see above the density plot. Bonica et al. find that Bezos is just a bit more liberal than Joe Manchin, the center-right Democratic senator from West Virginia. Charles Koch and his brother David are among the most conservative rich donors, though still well to the left of Michelle Bachmann, while Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google are to the left of even George Soros (though more conservative than Bernie Sanders or, for that matter, Barack Obama).

As with any estimates like this, it's important not to read too much into the numbers, especially when you're using only one dimension. For instance, on a multidimensional scale Bezos would probably show up as to Manchin's right on economic issues but his left socially (Manchin, after all, is among the few Democrats yet to endorse same-sex marriage). But still, it's a neat little comparison; thanks to Kevin Collins for pointing it out.

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Sarah Kliff | August 8, 2013