Ideological Underpinnings

Republicans pondering their fate and future have noted that while there was a partisan shift in voter turnout this year, there wasn’t an ideological one: Conservatives still outnumber liberals by 50 percent. It’s true – but the comfort may be, let’s say, a cool one.

Thirty-four percent of voters in the national exit poll identified themselves as conservatives and 22 percent as liberals, with the plurality, 44 percent, as moderates. That makes this more a center-right than a center-left country – a reason Democrats, even with all the advantages they can muster, don’t win presidential elections by double-digits.

But there are other results to consider. One is that liberals hit their high water mark this year in exit polls since 1976 – not significantly different from 2004’s 21 percent, but up from their lows, 17 or 18 percent, in 1980 through ’88. Conservatives peaked at 36 percent in 1984, though they’ve been lower than this year, 29 percent in 2000.

Moreover, while conservatives are a bigger group among whites – 37 percent of that population, vs. 20 percent liberals – whites, as noted in our election-night analysis, make up a declining share of the voting population. Self-described conservatives this year accounted for smaller shares of Hispanics (29 percent), blacks (20 percent) and Asian-Americans (also 20 percent) alike. Liberals in fact outnumbered conservatives among blacks and Asian-Americans, and fell just 3 points short among Hispanics.

As important as the size of these groups is their vote, and that’s where the data are most telling. Take moderates, that big group in the middle: Barack Obama won more of them than any candidate in exit polls dating back 28 years, 60 percent. He also won liberals by the widest margin on record. And he pulled in 20 percent of conservatives, up from John Kerry’s 15 percent four years ago. (Obama also won 17 percent of George W. Bush’s supporters in 2004, double John McCain’s share of Kerry voters).

Ideology, moreover, is difficult to define precisely. Conservatives once favored states’ rights, limited government and balanced budgets; Democrats, federal mandates and expensive entitlements. Those distinctions have grown fuzzier.

A vote driven by the perceived importance of future Supreme Court appointees might be seen as an ideological vote; among those who called such appointments the single most important factor in their vote, Obama won by 16 points. Views on taxes might be seen as ideological, but among voters who were persuaded that McCain would not raise their taxes, 40 percent voted for Obama anyway. Opposition to government aid for failing financial firms may be ideological; but Obama won voters who support and “somewhat” oppose the program alike. (Even among “strong” opponents, he drew 46 percent.)

One thing we do know is that a substantial part of conservative ideology correlates with religious belief: evangelical Christians accounted for 43 percent of all conservative voters. Another is the fact that whatever their self-described ideology, well under half of voters, 42 percent, called Obama “too liberal,” despite McCain’s best efforts to raise that alarm. (Seventy-four percent of conservatives called Obama too liberal, but just 36 percent of moderates agreed.)

There’s also the exit poll’s flawed question on the role of government – whether it should “do more to solve problems” or “is doing too many things better left to businesses.” The challenge in making sense of this question is that it’s dependent on what problems people are thinking about, what government they’re thinking about, and the fact that government and businesses aren’t the only players in the problem-solving game.

In any case some of the heavy hitters on the current political agenda hardly militate for government inaction; few argue for a laissez faire approach to the economic crisis (sure enough, the more finanically stressed voters are, the more likely to say government should do more), and national security is hardly a private-sector pursuit. On the other hand, government action can raise all sorts of concerns across the ideological spectrum, depending, again, on which government, and what action.

So the result? Fifty-one percent of voters this year said government should do more to solve problems, up from 41 percent when the question first was asked in the 1996 exit poll and over half, albeit barely, for the first time. Fewer, 43 percent, said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses, down 10 points from its peak in 2000.

What’s interesting is that the sense government should “do more” is up across the ideological spectrum – compared to 2000, up by 8 points among liberals, by 10 points among moderates and by 8 points among conservatives as well (albeit just to 29 percent). That suggests that what the rebuilding Republicans may want to consider isn’t just the size of ideological groups – but also their evolving sentiments about the role of government, as the problems facing that government change.

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