Media conservatives claim America is "center-right," but political scientists challenge reliance on voter self-identification

››› ››› MATT GERTZ & DIANNA PARKER

Several conservative commentators claim America is ideologically a "center-right" country, citing as evidence general election exit polls showing that 22 percent of respondents identify themselves as "liberal," 44 percent as "moderate" and 34 percent as "conservative." But political scientists dispute the reliability of voters' identification with political ideologies, and other polling has found that a strong majority favored the more progressive position on a number of issues.

Notwithstanding sweeping Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, several conservative commentators claim America is ideologically a "center-right" country, citing as evidence general election exit polls showing that 22 percent of respondents identify themselves as "liberal," 44 percent as "moderate" and 34 percent as "conservative." But political scientists dispute the reliability of voters' identification with political ideologies, saying that those who do not regularly follow political discourse often lack an understanding of what constitutes "conservative" and "liberal" principles and policies. Moreover, notwithstanding the findings in exit polling of voter self-identification, a postelection poll by Democracy Corps found that a strong majority favored the more progressive position on a number of issues.

In a November 10 column, New York Times columnist Bill Kristol wrote that "this was a good Democratic year, but it is still a center-right country":

What's more, this year's exit polls suggested a partisan shift but no ideological realignment. In 2008, self-described Democrats made up 39 percent of the electorate and Republicans 32 percent, in contrast with a 37-37 split in 2004.

But there was virtually no change in the voters' ideological self-identification: in 2008, 22 percent called themselves liberal, up only marginally from 21 percent in 2004; 34 percent were conservative, unchanged from the last election; and 44 percent called themselves moderate, compared with 45 percent in 2004.

In other words, this was a good Democratic year, but it is still a center-right country. Conservatives and the Republican Party will have a real chance for a comeback -- unless the skills of the new president turn what was primarily an anti-Bush vote into the basis for a new liberal governing era.

In a November 6 column in The Wall Street Journal, Karl Rove wrote:

It is a tribute to his skills that Mr. Obama, the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, won in a country that remains center-right. Most pre-election polls and the wiggly exits indicate America remains ideologically stable, with 34% of voters saying they are conservative -- unchanged from 2004. Moderates went to 44% from 45% of the electorate, while liberals went to 22% from 21%.

In his November 5 Chicago Sun-Times column, Steve Huntley wrote that "the exit polls showing the Americans who voted Tuesday described themselves as 44 percent moderate, 34 percent conservative and only 22 percent liberal. That would seem to portray a center-right nation":

You hear conservatives saying the voters didn't reject conservative principles in this election, they rejected a Bush administration and its congressional allies who had rejected conservative principles.

I'd like to think that, too, but the verdict is still out and it will probably be some time before we know if the ground shifted under American politics with Barack Obama's resounding victory.

[...]

On the other side of the argument are the exit polls showing the Americans who voted Tuesday described themselves as 44 percent moderate, 34 percent conservative and only 22 percent liberal. That would seem to portray a center-right nation.

During the November 7 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show, Rush Limbaugh said:

LIMBAUGH: This is not a liberal country; it's not a center-left country. Look at the exit polls. Look at the number of people who identified themselves as conservatives versus liberals. This is a center-right country. Barack Obama -- now, some of you are gonna just not believe me on this -- Obama, in the last three weeks of this campaign, was running as a conservative. Tell me the last liberal you ever heard promising a tax cut for 95 percent of the American people.

But in the 2005 edition of American Public Opinion*, Robert S. Erikson and Kent L. Tedin, political science professors at Columbia University and the University of Houston, respectively, questioned the reliability of poll questions that ask voters to self-identify with a political ideology. Noting that "a standard poll question is to ask respondents their ideological identification, usually with three choices of liberal, moderate, and conservative, " Erikson and Tedin wrote:

Ideally, ideological classification is a convenient way to measure individuals' core political values and to summarize their political views on a variety of issues. In practice, the result is mixed. The most politically sophisticated segment of the public approximates the ideal. For them, ideological identification goes a long way toward describing their political convictions. But when less sophisticated people respond to the ideological identification question with a response of liberal, moderate, or conservative, we can be less sure of what the response means. At worst, the response represents some idiosyncratic meaning known only to the respondent, or perhaps a doorstop opinion made up on the spot. [Page 67]

After listing traditionally conservative and liberal views, Erikson and Tedin continued: "These kinds of relative distinctions are familiar to people who follow politics closely. But the language of ideology holds less meaning for the public as a whole. One test is whether the individual can both identify the Republican as the more conservative party and offer a plausible definition of the term conservative. Roughly half the public passes this test of understanding of ideological labels" [Page 68].

Moreover, as Media Matters for America documented, Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling group, released a poll on November 7 that showed strong support for the progressive positions that President-elect Barack Obama advocated, including the repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy and near-universal health-care coverage. The poll also included questions that provided a direct choice between the position taken by Obama on a given issue and that taken by Sen. John McCain (without referring to Obama or McCain) -- with the more progressive choice echoing Obama's position and the more conservative echoing McCain's. For most questions that juxtaposed a clear progressive view with a clear conservative view, the progressive position was more popular.

* Erikson, Robert S., and Kent L. Tedin. American Public Opinion. 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

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