skip to main content

Most Americans Identify as Either Conservative or Moderate

by Frank Newport, Editor in Chief
The Gallup Poll

The American population can be classified into political subgroups in a variety of ways. Partisan identification -- the way in which the public identifies with the major political parties -- is the most common of these. Although the pattern of party identification has changed over time, and indeed varies from month to month in some instances, one short-hand way of approximating where the public stands is to say that roughly a third of the population tends to identify as Democrat, a third as Republican, and a third as independent.

Ideology -- self-identification as liberal, conservative, or moderate -- is the other major way in which the public can be politically segmented. Because Republicans tend to be associated with conservative causes, and Democrats with liberal causes, one might assume that about a third of the population is conservative, a third liberal, and a third in the middle.

That's not the case, however. The American public is significantly more likely to identify as conservative or moderate than as liberal, leaving a situation in which about 4 in 10 Americans call themselves conservative, 4 in 10 call themselves moderates, and only about 2 in 10 call themselves liberal.

There have been some very slight changes in these patterns over the last four years, with Americans a little more likely to be conservative in October and early November of this year, but the basic pattern has remained remarkably stable:

 

Americans' Ideology
Identification as Conservative, Moderate, or Liberal

Conservative

Moderate

Liberal

%

%

%

2003 Oct/Nov

41

39

19

2002 Oct

38

39

19

2001 Oct

38

40

19

2000 Oct

37

42

20



The data in the table below display the breakdown of ideology within various subgroups of the American population, based on a combined sample of 4,036 interviews conducted in October and early November 2003:

Ideology by Demographic Subgroups

Based on Gallup Polls Conducted in October and November 2003

Conservative

Moderate

Liberal

N=

%

%

%

Total

41

39

19

4,036

Men

44

39

16

1,928

Women

39

39

21

2,108

Approve of Bush

55

35

9

2,194

Disapprove of Bush

23

44

32

1,689

East

35

43

22

919

Midwest

44

37

18

933

South

44

38

18

1,293

West

40

39

19

888

Whites

43

38

18

3,175

Blacks

30

47

22

440

White Easterners

36

44

20

764

White Midwesterners

44

38

17

822

White Southerners

49

33

17

989

White Westerners

43

37

20

668

High school diploma or less

42

41

16

1,573

Some college education

45

37

18

1,316

College graduate

39

39

21

557

Postgraduate education

31

41

28

577

Republicans

70

26

4

1,307

Independents

29

47

22

1,521

Democrats

25

43

31

1,193

18- to 29-year-olds

32

40

27

762

30- to 49-year-olds

42

39

19

1,625

50- to 64-year-olds

42

40

18

901

65 years and older

47

40

11

719

18- to 38-years-old

35

39

25

1,216

39- to 57-years-old

40

40

20

1,592

58 years and older

47

39

14

1,226

Men, aged 18 to 49

42

39

18

1,180

Men, aged 50 and older

46

40

13

739

Women, aged 18 to 49

35

39

25

1,209

Women, aged 50 and older

43

40

17

881

Less than $20,000 per year

36

42

21

562

$20,000-$29,999 per year

38

43

19

591

$30,000-$49,999 per year

40

40

19

1,066

$50,000-$74,999 per year

46

38

17

686

$75,000 per year and more

42

37

21

909

White Republicans

64

31

5

1,698

White Democrats

20

44

36

1,282

Black Democrats

27

49

24

238

Several key points arise from a consideration of these data:

  • There are no subgroups (among those included in this analysis) among whom identification as "liberal" is higher than 36%, suggesting that the liberal "brand" remains distinctly a minority in American culture today. Of particular interest is the fact that only 31% of Democrats say they are "liberal." About one in four Democrats identifies as "conservative," while the remaining 43% identify as moderate. This contrasts with the 70% of Republicans who identify themselves as conservative.
  • Whites are more likely to identify themselves as conservatives than are blacks, which isn't necessarily surprising. But blacks are not disproportionately liberal. Instead, almost half of blacks identify as moderate, with 30% saying they are conservative and just 22% as liberal.
  • An interesting pattern develops when we look at the interaction of race and party identification. Black Democrats are actually slightly more conservative than white Democrats are, and decidedly less liberal.

    This most probably reflects the fact -- confirmed in previous Gallup Poll research -- that blacks are actually quite conservative on a number of moral issues including homosexual marriage and abortion, despite being quite liberal in their orientation to social issues such as gun control, affirmative action, and welfare. This in turn is almost certainly a result of the high levels of religiosity among blacks in American society, an orientation that pulls blacks away from traditional Democratic views on social issues and puts them closer to the position of white, conservative Republicans.
  • Americans with postgraduate educations are more likely to identify themselves as liberal than those with lower levels of educational attainment are. In fact, this highly educated group is more liberal than any subgroup looked at in this analysis other than Democrats and those who disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president.
  • There has been a great deal of attention focused on the baby boom generation, the large group of Americans born between 1946 and 1964 (and a group in which the last two presidents have been members). In sheer numbers alone, baby boomers are a significant slice of the demographic pie and thus a potent political force. But the analysis shows that baby boomers are actually ideologically quite similar to the overall adult population in this country. Baby boomers are more conservative than those who are younger, and less conservative than those who are older.
  • In fact, the interesting distinction in ideology occurs between the youngest group of Americans, those aged 18 to 29, and the oldest, those 65 and older. The former are less likely than average to identify as conservative and more likely to identify as liberal, while the older group is more likely to be conservative and less likely to be liberal.
  • Men are slightly more conservative and less likely to be liberal than are women. More broadly, 18- to 49-year-old women are less conservative than other age/gender groups in American society today.
  • Conservatism is slightly higher in the South and Midwest and slightly lower in the East. This pattern is particularly pronounced among whites. Forty-nine percent of white Southerners are conservative, providing a sharp contrast to the significantly lower 36% of white Easterners who are conservative. Easterners tend to be more moderate in their ideological orientation.

There has been much discussion in recent years about the success of talk radio shows and other media programming focused on a more conservative audience. Commentators often ask why liberal media have been much less successful in creating such programs aimed at their constituency. These data help explain this phenomenon. There simply aren't as many liberals as conservatives.

The Democratic Party is going through the throes of selecting its presidential nominee, and some analysts see former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean as one of the front-runners, based in part of his outspoken opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq -- a decidedly liberal position. At the same time, it has been pointed out that Dean was more moderate in some of his social positions while governor. The data reviewed here, showing that even a significant majority of Democrats identify as conservative or moderate, certainly suggest that Dean (or whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be) would do well to position themselves more in the middle of the road, and to avoid being typecast as a liberal. Certainly the data suggest that a presidential candidate who appeals to conservative or moderate voters will have a larger constituency than one who is identified as a liberal.

Gallup


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/9691/most-americans-identify-either-conservative-moderate.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030