November 25, 2008

Winds of Political Change Haven’t Shifted Public’s Ideology Balance

by Juliana Horowitz, Research Associate, Pew Research Center for the People & the Press

Figure

The Democratic Party’s advantage in party identification has widened over the past two decades, but the share of Americans who describe their political views as liberal, conservative or moderate has remained stable during the same period. Only about one-in-five Americans currently call themselves liberal (21%), while 38% say they are conservative and 36% describe themselves as moderate. This is virtually unchanged from recent years; when George W. Bush was first elected president, 18% of Americans said they were liberal, 36% were conservative and 38% considered themselves moderate.1

Young people are considerably more likely than older Americans to describe their political views as liberal. About the same number of those younger than age 30 say they are liberal (27%) as say they are conservative (30%). The ideological gap is much wider among older Americans; 50 to 64 year-olds are more than twice as likely to describe themselves as conservative (41%) than as liberal (19%), and those age 65 and older are three times more likely to say they are conservative (45% vs. 15% liberal).

Figure

Ideological ratings also vary significantly by education. Four-in-ten Americans with graduate degrees say they are politically moderate, while about three-in-ten say they are either liberal or conservative (29% each). Among those with no more than a high school education, a third says they are moderate, 41% describe themselves as conservative and fewer than one-in-five call themselves liberal (18%).

Still, ideological labels do not always predict opinions about key policy issues. For example, about half of Americans who describe their political views as conservative say that all (24%) or some (27%) of the tax cuts passed under George W. Bush should be repealed. More than four-in-ten conservatives (43%) say that abortion should be legal in some or all cases. On the other hand, nearly half of self-described liberals (49%) favor more offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. waters.

Ideology among Partisans

Democrats, on balance, describe themselves as either liberal (34%) or moderate (37%) and the proportion labelling themselves as liberal has risen in recent years. Republicans, on the other hand, are not only largely conservative (68%) but, as their share of the electorate has declined somewhat, a higher proportion now say they are conservative than in the past. The ideological balance has been more stable among independents.

Figure

About a third of Democrats label themselves as liberal (34%) and a quarter say they are conservative; in 2000, Democrats were about as likely to say they were liberal (27%) as they were to call themselves conservative (24%). Fewer Democrats now say they are moderate than did so in recent years.

While Democrats are divided in their ideological ratings, Republicans largely classify their political views as conservative; about two-thirds describe themselves that way (68%), compared with 64% in 2004 and 63% in 2000. A quarter say they are moderate, while virtually no Republican says the label “liberal” applies to them (4%).

Figure

Among independents, nearly half (45%) describe their views as moderate, 30% say they are conservative and 20% call themselves liberal. These figures are nearly identical to the way independents described their political views earlier in the decade. In 2000, 46% called themselves moderate, 28% said they were conservative and 20% described themselves as liberal. In 2005, however, independents were about as likely to say they were liberal (24%) as they were to label themselves conservative (26%).

Who Are the Liberal Democrats?

Among Democrats, younger whites and college graduates are the most likely to say their political views are liberal. Fully half of Democratic college graduates describe themselves that way, as do 48% of white Democrats younger than 30. Just four years ago, Democrats in these demographic groups were about as likely to say they were moderate as they were to call themselves liberal (40% moderate and 42% liberal among younger whites and 42% moderate and 45% liberal among college graduates in 2004).

Conversely, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely among Democrats to define their views as liberal. Fewer than one-in-five say they are liberal (19%), compared with 41% who call themselves moderate and 35% who say they are conservative. The ideological ratings of white mainline Protestants and white, non-Hispanic Catholics are more in line with the overall rating for all Democrats.

Black Democrats also are less likely to say they are liberal (25%) than to say they are conservative (35%). Another 35% describe their views as moderate. Among white Democrats, however, 37% define themselves as liberal and about the same share says they are moderate (38%). Only about one-in-five white Democrats call themselves conservative (21%).

Republicans Largely Conservative

Figure

Solid majorities of Republicans across virtually all demographic groups say their political views are best described as conservative.

White evangelical Protestants are the most conservative Republicans: 79% describe their political views as conservative, compared with 17% who say they are moderate and just 2% who call themselves liberal. Republican white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics also are largely conservative (63% and 66%, respectively), but about three-in-ten in each group say their views are moderate (31% among white mainline Protestants and 30% among white Catholics).

Republicans younger than age 30 are less likely than older Republicans to classify their political views as conservative, but 62% in this age group says the label applies to them, while 29% say they are moderate and 7% are liberal. In contrast, among those age 50 and older, nearly three-quarters call themselves conservative (72%), 22% say they are moderate and just 4% say they are liberal.

Ideology and Issue Positions

The ideological ratings Americans ascribe to their political views often reflect positions on key policy issues. For example, about seven-in-ten self-described conservatives oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while nearly the same percentage of self-described liberals favor it (68%).

Figure

Yet, even within ideological groups there are disagreements over major issues. Liberals are divided in their views of offshore drilling — 49% favor and 48% oppose allowing more oil and gas drilling in U.S. waters as a way to address America’s energy needs.

Conservatives are about equally split when it comes to the U.S. government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens. Half of those who describe their political views as conservative favor government-backed insurance even if it means raising taxes, while 47% oppose it. And while majorities of conservatives think the United States made the right decision in using military force against Iraq and favor troops remaining there until the situation has stabilized (59% each), sizable minorities say the war was the wrong decision (37%) and favor the troops coming home as soon as possible (39%).


Notes

1 For a detailed analysis of the shifts in party identification see “Democrats Post Gains in Affiliation Across Age Cohorts,” Oct. 31, 2008