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Ideological Shift or Just Complicated?

The 2008 electorate was unquestionably a more Democratic group than had shown up at the polls in years, but does that change mean the nation's political views have shifted leftward?

Network exit polls suggest little movement, at least in voters' adherence to ideological labels. Voters' stated ideology changed little since 2004, even among the younger voters who tilted so heavily Democratic, but there are other signs of potential shifts.

Overall, 39 percent of this year's voters said they were Democrats, 32 percent Republicans, a big change from four years ago when the split was 37-37. But despite this shift in partisanship, voters were no more or less apt this time around to call themselves liberal or conservative.

This year, 22 percent of voters said they are liberal on most political matters, 44 percent called themselves moderates, 34 percent conservatives. Four years ago, it was virtually the same: 21 percent liberal, 45 percent moderate and 34 percent conservative.

Party and Ideology: 2004 to 2008

        2004     2008    2004  2008
       Dem-Rep  Dem-Rep  %Lib  %Lib
All     Even     D +7     21    22

18-29   D +2     D+19     31    32
30-44   R +6     D +5     19    21
45-59   D +3     D +3     20    20
60+     R +2     D +4     17    17

Much of the partisan change was concentrated among younger voters. Among those under age 30, Democrats held a 19-point advantage in party identification this year, a 17-point improvement for Democrats since 2004. That shift was smaller among older voters, moving 11 points in favor of the Democrats among those aged 30 to 44 and six points among those over age 60. There was no change at all among those aged 45 to 59.

But even among those in their late teens and 20s, the ideological composition was little different in 2008 than it was in 2004: 32 percent are liberal now, 31 percent were liberal four years ago.

Looking at views on policy, the exit poll does indicate some shift, particularly among the young. But whether that change is due to a real change in views on the role of government or more a reflection of growing concern about the nation's well being is a bit murky.

A narrow majority (51 percent) of this year's voters said government should take more action to solve the country's problems, up from 46 percent in 2004. Moderates, who were evenly divided (48 percent to 48 percent) on the question in 2004 now favor Washington's intervention (55 percent to 39 percent).

And the share of younger voters who think government should be more actively involved has grown 26 percentage points since 2004. It was a far more modest two point change among voters age 30 and up.

Given the ambiguity of the question (see below for the full text), some of this shift is likely attributable to a greater sense that the nation is in trouble: about eight in 10 voters said the nation is seriously off on the wrong track this time around, it was a bit less than half that in 2004.

The two groups noted above, however, have shifted more drastically in favor of government action.


Q: Which comes closer to your view: Government should do more to solve problems or government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals?


Q: Do you think things in this country today are generally going in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track?





By Jennifer Agiesta  |  November 13, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Exit polls  
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Next: Voters' Vantage Point: The Economy


Exit polling that questions about conservative vs. liberal orientations does far more to prove Republicans' effectiveness at tinting the lexicon than revealing what voters actually think. "Liberal" has become a taboo word to most, even though many people (perhaps a solid majority) are, in fact, liberal in philosophy. The same thing happened to the word "communism" - many people are in favor of sharing, helping their community, helping the society as a whole, but when they're asked if they're communist, they'll respond vehemently in the negative.

Pollsters need to do a much better job in asking questions that emphasize ideas, not semantics. Commentators and news reporters need to do a better job of understanding the difference, and asking questions about polls that go deeper beneath the surface. This article starts to do that, but could do a much better job.

Posted by: crashinghero | November 13, 2008 2:10 PM | Report abuse

People that share or do community service, perhaps have a social conscience are now communist. Talk about "tinting the Lexicon"

Posted by: saw1 | November 13, 2008 6:32 PM | Report abuse

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