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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

How Many Liberals and Conservatives?

by Scott Winship
Y’all ready for this? Another Data Day! (Admit it, when you read the first sentence that synthesizer-and-drum instrumental that they play at the baseball stadium between innings started playing in your head. And you kind of danced along.)
My vast legion of regular readers should know by now that I am dangerously obsessed with the distribution of liberals and conservatives in the U.S. The obvious first cut at this question is to look at polls that ask people how they identify. You should sit down if you’re not familiar with how these results turn out. Here is a representative set of findings:

• Adults, late 2004, based on my own analyses of the 2004 National Election Study: 35% liberal, 55% conservative (remainder are moderates, non-identifiers, or reported inconsistencies before and after the election)
• Adults, late 2004, Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: 19% liberal, 39% conservative (remainder are moderate)
• Voters, late 2004, based on my own analyses of the 2004 National Election Study: 33% liberal, 56% conservative
• Likely Voters, January 2006, Democracy Corps: 19% liberal, 36% conservative

My own analyses are different from the others in that I have two responses from each person – one before and one after the election – and because the NES tries to get as many people as possible to choose either liberal or conservative rather than moderate. Anyway, the bottom line is that when respondents can choose “moderate”, roughly twice as many people identify as conservative as call themselves liberal. If moderates are forced to choose, they split roughly evenly, leaving 55-60 percent more conservatives than liberals. And these statements hold whether one is looking at adults, voters, or likely voters.
OK, the response from those who don’t like these facts is invariably that a lot of people really are liberal, but the term has been made into a dirty word by conservatives. If you ask people about their policy preferences and values, liberals would be in the majority.
Of course, saying it doesn’t make it so, but this assertion could be true. To test it, I used the NES from 2004, first choosing questions from the survey related to values and values-laden issues; foreign policy and national security; economic and social policy; and fiscal policy.* Within each of these four domains, I created weights for each question based on how well it predicted the presidential vote. Then I categorized everyone as a liberal or conservative in each domain by seeing whether weighted liberal responses to the questions out-numbered weighted conservative responses. Finally, (de-glaze your eyes) I weighted the four liberal/conservative designations based on their predictive power and categorized everyone as an “operational” liberal or conservative.
Now the good stuff. Based on my weighting scheme, the country is evenly split between operational liberals and conservatives. Adults are conservative on foreign policy and national security (52 to 48) and values (62 to 38), but liberal on economic/social policy (57 to 43) and fiscal policy (60 to 40). Consistent with the idea that liberal is a stigmatized word, just 56 percent of operational liberals self-identified as liberal, while 30 percent self-identified as conservative. In contrast, 79 percent of operational conservatives said they were conservative.
I divided the electorate into five groups. The biggest group consists of self-identified conservatives who are also operationally conservative – 42 percent of the electorate. These folks are solidly conservative in all four policy domains, and solidly Republican. Self-identified liberals who are also operationally liberal constitute a smaller group – 27 percent of the electorate. They are the mirror image of their conservative counterparts.
Another 13 percent of voters say they are conservative but are operationally liberal. Forty-three percent say they are Democrats, while just 26 percent indicate they are Republican. Solid majorities voted for Gore in 2000 and Kerry in 2004. They are consistently liberal in the four policy domains, except that they are split down the middle on values. It’s unclear whether values trumps the other policy domains or whether these are the voters for whom liberal is a four-letter word.
Voters who say they are liberal but are operationally conservative amount to just 5 percent of the electorate. Most of these voters are independents. They gave Bush 49 percent of their vote in 2000, but 59 percent in 2004. Tellingly, they are conservative on foreign policy and national security, as well as on values. They split on economic and social policy and on fiscal policy.
Finally, 13 percent of voters do not consistently describe themselves as a liberal or a conservative. This is actually a diverse group. They lean slightly Democratic, but they gave Kerry a solid 59 percent of their vote. Over half are operational liberals. They split on foreign policy and national security, lean right on values, and lean left on economic and social policy and fiscal policy.
There’s much more I could write, which I’ll save for a future post. One point I will eventually expand on is that the fact that so many people identify as conservative even when they tend to prefer liberal policies may imply that they are voting on “character” rather than issues. The liberal/conservative gap in self-identified ideology means something. For now, I’ll just note a couple of take-home points for Democratic strategy.
First, consistent with conventional wisdom, attracting swing voters means emphasizing values and national security. These issues are crucial to improving performance among inconsistent identifiers and liberal-identifying conservatives. Values issues also appear key to keeping and improving performance among conservative-identifying liberals.
It is possible that an economic populist message would be effective among inconsistent identifiers, who appear primed for both economic and cultural populism. Populism doesn’t appear particularly likely to resonate among liberal-identifying conservatives, who became much more likely to support Bush between 2000 and 2004, during which time the al Qaida attacks seem to have pushed them toward Bush. Nor does it appear to be promising as a strategy aimed at conservative-identifying liberals who, after all, call themselves “conservative” mostly on the basis of their views on values issues.
Finally, increasing turnout could be successful, but I found that nonvoters had pretty much the same ideological distribution as voters did. So it wouldn’t necessarily yield a bumper crop of new Democratic votes.
*Space prevents me from going into details, but if you are interested in a memo summarizing my analyses and additional results, send an email to swinship-at-gmail.com and I will do my best to get it to you within a couple of weeks.

2 comments on “How Many Liberals and Conservatives?

  1. Daniel DiRito on

    Rasmussen conducts a poll called the “Hillary Meter” which is a survey taken every other week since early 2005. The survey is to gauge the voter’s perception of Hillary Clinton’s position relative to the country’s political center…basically a measure of liberal vs. conservative.

    Collectively, today’s Hillary Meter places Senator Clinton a net 55 points to the left of the nation’s political center. Two weeks ago, she was 53 points to the left of center.
    The political center is calculated by subtracting the number of liberals from the number of conservatives among the general public (35% conservative, 18% liberal for a net +17). For the Senator, 8% conservative minus 46% liberal equals a net minus 38. The minus 38 reading for Senator Clinton is 55 points away from the plus 17 reading for the general public.

    The numbers are a fascinating look at perceptions and the impact that political strategy can have on the voter’s views about candidates or political parties. Note that Clinton was able to change the perceptions about her position on the political spectrum shortly after she began to move towards the center. At the same time, she still remains predominantly viewed as a liberal. The shift in perception was relatively small when one looks at a representative sampling of all voters.
    Conversely, the netroots have offered a vocal and visible critique of the Clinton shift. Despite this criticism of Clinton’s shift towards the center, the overall impact on how she is viewed by the vast majority of voters doesn’t appear to be significant. It appears that the netroots view, though readily apparent and available, is one of relative placement on the political spectrum and not of consequence in influencing the general voter perceptions on the overall political spectrum. Essentially, she may be further from the netroot left but she is still viewed as being significantly left of the national center (if one accepts the definitional data that the general public is significantly skewed conservative at the moment). It is difficult to ignore the importance of this data when making meaningful election calculations and doing so may well prove to be a noteworthy strategical mistake.
    One must then look at the relative forces that are at play in influencing the broader voting public in their perceptions of Democrats in general and specifically with regard to Clinton. I believe one can argue that the strategy incorporated by Karl Rove and the Republican Party is having a larger impact on perceptions than that of the netroots. While those who identify as netroot Democrats likely view Clinton to the right of center, in relative terms, their observations and protestations are having little influence on the general publics perception. At the same time, Rove and the Republicans seem to be able to convince voters that the Clinton shift is minimal and that she still remains significantly left of center…which has been and will continue to be forcefully stated as being out of the mainstream. In the end, it seems apparent that the Republican’s are winning the perception game.
    Read the full posting “Political Strategy: The Numbers Speak”….here:

  2. Paul Waldman on

    Scott –
    I’m very interested in this question too, and though I’d love to see a detailed memo, I think it would help a lot if you would post at least what you classified as liberal and conservative positions. I’m particularly interested in the “culture” questions, where there seems to be the largest gap. As I’m sure you know, the NES’s questions lag behind the times (not too many people talking in terms of “aid to blacks” these days, for instance), but one of the most notable features of our “cultural” debate is the way it moves in a more progressive direction all the time. Is opposition to gay marriage “conservative”? It is now, but just a short time ago nobody even discussed it, while the “conservative” position was that it was OK to fire people or kick them out of their homes for being gay, which is now what nobody discusses anymore. Glancing over the NES, the only cultural issue I see on which the conservative position is much more popular is school prayer, which is not exactly something we spend a lot of time debating. So how do you get such a big advantage for conservatives on culture? Details, please.


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