Label Warfare in the Election

by Lydia Saad, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

With George W. Bush and John Kerry now squaring off as their party's presumptive nominees for president, voters can expect a war of words as each campaign attempts to discredit the other. The main weapon in Bush's rhetoric arsenal is almost certain to be the "L" word. Not only will the Bush campaign tag Kerry as a liberal, but as a Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis kind of liberal. On the other hand, it seems unlikely Kerry's campaign will be running TV ads branding Bush as a "conservative." Thus far, Kerry has shown a greater penchant for adjectives such as "arrogant," "inept," and "reckless" in assailing Bush.

The reason for this disparity in label warfare is clear. Gallup polling* typically shows that twice as many Americans consider themselves conservatives as liberals. Most recently, 40% described their political views as conservative, 37% as moderate, and only 21% as liberal.

Beyond Americans' basic ideology, each year, Gallup finds out how Americans perceive their views on social issues separate from their views on economic issues. According to combined data from 2001, 2002, and 2003, Americans are particularly conservative when it comes to economics. When asked whether they would say their views on economic issues are "very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal," only 16% of Americans consider themselves liberal; 43% say they are conservative. On social issues, 24% of Americans consider themselves liberal, and 37% conservative.

Americans' Self-Described Political Ideology by Issue

 

Social Issues

Economic Issues

 

%

%

Conservative

37

43

Moderate

37

39

Liberal

24

16



The picture is more complex when comparing people's social and economic views. Twenty-seven percent of Americans are socially and economically conservative, and the percentage liberal on both is 10%. Twenty percent of Americans are socially and economically moderate.

Ideological Purists

Social and Economic Conservative

27%

Social and Economic Moderate

20%

Social and Economic Liberal

10%



Close to half of Americans could be described as ideological hybrids because they have different views about social and economic issues. It's fairly common for Americans to be economically conservative, but socially moderate or liberal. Sixteen percent of Americans fall into this category of responses. Another 10% are socially liberal, but economically moderate. And then another 10% are socially conservative, but economically moderate or liberal. Only 4% are socially moderate and economically liberal.

Ideological Hybrids

Social Moderate/Liberal and Economic Conservative

16%

Social Liberal and Economic Moderate

10%

Social Conservative and Economic Moderate/Liberal

10%

Social Moderate and Economic Liberal

4%

Undesignated (no opinion to one or both)

3%



Demographic Distinctions

There is a strong relationship between partisanship and ideology. Republicans are mostly conservative on social as well as economic issues. Independents and Democrats are more mixed, with the plurality being moderate on each dimension.

Ideology by Party ID

 

Republican

Independent

Democratic

 

%

%

%

Social Issues

     

Conservative

61

29

21

Moderate

30

40

41

Liberal

8

28

35

       

Economic Issues

     

Conservative

64

35

31

Moderate

28

43

44

Liberal

7

20

22



Aside from party, the groups most likely to be conservative on both social and economic issues are regular churchgoers, Southerners, adults aged 50 and older, and married people. Men with high incomes -- those living in households earning $75,000 or more annually -- are more conservative than average on economic issues, but slightly less conservative than average on social issues.

Net Conservative Scores
(percent conservative minus percent liberal)

 

Social Issues

Economic Issues

     

Republican

53

57

Attend church weekly

34

40

South

25

34

Women 50+

25

32

Married

24

33

Men 50+

21

37

$75,000+ men

10

34

National Adults

13

27



Because many more people tend to be conservative than liberal on social and economic issues, the net liberal scores are quite low, even for those groups most likely to register liberal views. In fact, no demographic or political group is more liberal than conservative on economic issues -- hence all net liberal scores by demographics are negative.

Still, respondents most likely to be liberal (or least likely to be conservative) on social and economic issues tend to be Democrats, those never married or living together, non-churchgoers, 18- to 29-year-olds, blacks, and political independents. Westerners are more liberal than the norm on social issues (-2 net liberal vs. -13), but about average for economic issues (-24 vs. -27).

 

Net Liberal Scores
(percent liberal minus percent conservative)

 

Social Issues

Economic Issues

     

Democratic

14

-9

Never married

13

-7

Living together

11

-12

Seldom/never attend church

6

-15

Ages 18 to 29

6

-11

Black

3

-11

Independent

-1

-15

Westerners

-2

-24

     

National Adults

-13

-27



Bottom Line

Bush runs little risk of turning off his own base by levying the "liberal" charge against Kerry. Whether this strategy will help him earn the votes of swing voters remains to be seen. But the math is clear. Only about one in five Americans consider themselves liberal generally, and only 10% perceive themselves as liberal on both social and economic issues. If Bush's attacks on Kerry's "liberal" social record don't resonate with some, his "liberal" charge against Kerry's fiscal record might. With only 16% of Americans saying they are liberal on economic issues, versus 24% liberal on social issues, it seems the liberal charge could have its greatest effect when attached to tax and spending issues.

*Data are based on a combination of three Gallup Polls, each of approximately 1,000 national adults aged 18 and older. Interviewing dates were May. 5-7, 2003, May 6-9, 2002, and May 10-13, 2003. For the total sample of 3,029 national adults, the maximum margin of error attributable to sampling is ±2 percentage points.

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