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Social Liberals Nearly Tie Social Conservatives in U.S.

Social Liberals Nearly Tie Social Conservatives in U.S.

Story Highlights

  • 34% in U.S. identify as socially conservative vs. 30% as socially liberal
  • Social liberalism has gained since 2001, while conservatism has waned
  • White, college-educated, older Democrats drive leftward shift

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Gallup's annual measurement of how Americans describe their views on social issues finds social liberals nearly tying with social conservatives for the fifth straight year. This is a change from 2001 through 2012 when social conservatives had the clear lead, including by 17-percentage-point margins in 2009 and 2010.

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In Gallup's latest update, conducted May 3-7, 34% of Americans describe their views as conservative or very conservative while 30% identify as liberal or very liberal. Another 34% call themselves moderate and 2% are unsure. Gallup measures Americans' ideology on social issues annually as part of its Values and Beliefs survey, conducted each May.

Democrats' Fueling Rise in Social Liberalism

The increase in social liberalism has not been universal, but has occurred mainly among Democrats. The percentage of Democrats describing themselves as socially liberal increased fairly steadily from 36% in 2001 to 53% 2015 where it has since held.

By contrast, Republicans' propensity to identify as socially liberal has hardly changed, consistently registering around 10%.

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In order to see whether the liberal shift in Democrats' social views is universal within the Democratic ranks, or limited to certain subgroups, Gallup has grouped its annual data into four time periods, allowing for larger sample sizes to evaluate the trends in Democratic subgroups. The earliest time period is from 2001 through 2005 when an average 37% of Democrats identified as socially liberal. The most recent period is from 2015 to 2017 when the figure held at 53%.

As shown in the accompanying table, social liberalism has risen among all major demographic subgroups of Democrats, as well as in the four main regions of the country. However, there are some notable differences:

  • After expressing similar views as Democratic men about their social ideology in all three time periods between 2001 and 2014, Democratic women grew more likely to identify as socially liberal in the last three years. Still, at least half of both groups are now socially liberal: 55% of women and 50% of men.
  • Older Democrats have shifted much more strongly toward social liberalism than have younger Democrats. As a result, after being far less liberal than younger adults in the early 2000s, those 55 and older are now about as liberal as those 35 to 54 (50% and 48%, respectively), although neither of the two older groups are as liberal as those 18 to 34 (61%).
  • Democratic college graduates have traditionally been more liberal than Democrats without a college degree. However, the gap has widened since the early 2000s as college graduates have grown 18 percentage points more likely to identify as socially liberal compared with a 12-point increase among non-college grads. As of 2015-2017, 71% of college graduates are socially liberal vs. 44% of non-college graduates.
  • Most of the increase in social liberalism among Democrats since the early 2000s has occurred among non-Hispanic whites. Whereas just 39% of white Democrats said they were liberal on social issues back in 2001-2005, that has risen to 61% since 2015-2017. By contrast, Blacks' views have hardly changed: 34% in the 2001-2005 period vs. 37% in 2015-2017. Thus, the overall gap in self-identification as socially liberal between whites and blacks has widened from five points in the earliest time period to 24 points most recently.
  • In the early 2000s Democrats in the West were significantly more likely than Democrats in the other regions to identify as liberal. However, since then the rest of the country has largely caught up while Western Democrats' views have grown only a bit more liberal.
Democrats' Views on Social Issues -- % Liberal
2015-2017 2011-2014 2006-2010 2001-2005 Change
% % % % pct. pts.
Gender
Men 50 48 43 38 12
Women 55 47 41 37 19
Age
18 to 34 61 54 51 47 13
35 to 54 48 46 44 40 8
55 and older 50 43 34 26 25
Education
College graduate 71 65 57 52 18
Non-college graduate 44 40 35 32 12
Race
Non-Hispanic white 61 54 45 39 22
Non-Hispanic black 37 38 29 34 3
Location
East 56 52 46 39 17
Midwest 53 47 39 33 20
South 49 42 35 31 18
West 56 51 51 49 7
Based on Democrats/Democratic leaners
Gallup

Implications

The increase in social liberalism in the U.S. seen since the early 2000s is the result of increasing liberalism among Democrats, and particularly among white, more-educated and older Democrats. The changes by age mean that various age groups of Democrats are now in greater political alignment. However, the changes by education and race have widened the divide on social issues between Democrats with and without college degrees, as well as between white and black Democrats.

This doesn't necessarily mean Democrats are at odds with each other. Indeed, despite the widening gaps along race and education lines, 89% of Democrats supported the Democratic Party's nominee for president in 2016. However, as Democratic leaders debate how to redefine the party post-President Barack Obama these data suggest that moving any further to the left on social issues could risk alienating Democrats with lower levels of education.

Those are the kinds of voters President Donald Trump might try to attract in a second-term bid, particularly if his GOP base is faltering. On the other hand, with most of these lesser-educated Democrats describing themselves as moderate on social issues rather than conservative, that would be a hard sell.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

The latest national results are based on telephone interviews conducted May 3-7, 2017, with a random sample of 1,011 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Result based on combined years have larger sample sizes

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Gallup


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