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The Most Important Number in Politics

Screen shot 2009-10-26 at 10.18.45 AM.png


That's the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as conservative in nine months of collected Gallup polling, the highest that number has been since 2004.

The data, which also showed 36 percent of the sample calling themselves moderate and just 20 percent saying they were liberal, was a compilation of 16 surveys (and more than 5,000 interviews) that Gallup conducted between January and September.

In Gallup's 2008 data, moderates and conservatives accounted for 37 percent each while liberals were 22 percent. In exit polling conducted in the 2008 presidential race, moderates dominated at 44 percent (and went for President Barack Obama with 60 percent) while conservatives comprised 34 percent of the electorate and liberals 22 percent.

The movement in the Gallup numbers from 2008 to 2009 came primarily from independents; last year 29 percent identified themselves as conservatives while this year more than one in three (35 percent) did the same. On several key issues questions, independents also moved to the ideological right -- most intriguingly when asked whether there was too much government regulation. In 2008, 38 percent of independents said government was too involved while 50 percent of that group said the same this year.

Republican strategists could barely contain their glee over the new numbers as, they argued, it was yet more evidence that America remains a center-right country and is rapidly returning to those roots in the wake of the sweeping Democratic successes of 2006 and 2008.

While the Gallup numbers are rightfully encouraging to Republicans who, after four years in the electoral wilderness, are in desperate need of good news, there is also reason for some skepticism.


Because the fluctuation in the Gallup numbers -- conservatives went from 37 percent in 2008 to 40 percent now -- may or may not constitute significant change.

A look at the trend line in Washington Post/ABC polling data suggests slight movement but nothing that would indicate a fundamental ideological realignment since 2005.

During that time, conservatives and moderates have alternated relatively regularly as the largest ideological group with liberals always placing a distant third. There has been some movement away from moderates and to conservatives, however, since the start of the year with the moderate number dropping from 42 percent to 36 percent and the conservative number moving up from 32 percent to 38 percent.

That movement makes sense given the context of the 2008 campaign where Obama was able to attract many moderates and even some conservatives to his cause thanks to the hope and change message. Once he got into office, however, the realities of governing -- and the growth of government Obama has overseen -- surely drove some moderates back into the conservative camp.

All of that is not to say that Republicans shouldn't take solace in these Gallup numbers. They should. But, context matters and the context suggests there may be slightly less to this data than meets the eye.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 26, 2009; 11:17 AM ET
Categories:  Most Important Number  
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Freespeak -

“The rest of us will then be "stuck" with people smart enough to govern.”

Governing would consist of less need to be NeoCom Statist control freaks.
We need less governing not more. You must be a free-luncher Dem.

Posted by: leapin | October 27, 2009 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Another thought: I wonder what the regional breakdown is? If this data reflects that the South is becoming more "conservative," that's jut carrying coals to Newcastle as far as the GOP's prospects as a national party are concerned. What would it mean, for instance, if the increase is 10% in the deep south and -6% in the rest of the country?

Posted by: nodebris | October 27, 2009 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Correction: this space's mothership (Drudge) does have a link to the poll. And in today's Washington Post, Kristol devotes a full op-ed to pushing this false narrative. Why am I not surprised?

Posted by: broadwayjoe | October 27, 2009 9:19 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure why anyone believes that "conservative" translates to "Republican" anymore.

George W. Bush was a conservative Republican and he was a miserable failure.

Bill Clinton was a conservative Democrat and he was a stunning success.

I dare Republicans to applaud the recent poll that shows Republicans with their lowest approval in a decade.

Hmmmm, that last low would be 1998, the year that the Republican leaders thought it was a smart idea to impeach the conservative Democrat who was a stunning success at governing.

(And they got historically thumped in that midterm election.)

The GOP answer to Bill Clinton was the miserable failure who called himself a Compassionate Conservative.

The GOP answer to Barack Obama is No We Can't.

The GOP can have all the right wing nut jobs.
The rest of us will then be "stuck" with people smart enough to govern.

Posted by: freespeak | October 27, 2009 6:21 AM | Report abuse

The only poll that counts is next Nov. If the economy has improved, with unemployment dropping and there is a health care bill that will save people money on their premiums people will be willing to give the Democrats a chance as long as they do not get too cocky.

Accomplishment will trump ideology.

Posted by: Gator-ron | October 26, 2009 11:21 PM | Report abuse

"Slightly less to this poll than meets they eye?"

Asked to rate themselves as liberal, moderate, or conservative. Were those terms defined?

As in, could every Republican and Republican leaning respondent have decided that he was Conservative, and every one else decided that he was moderate or liberal?

When you can't ask a meaningful question, "Is the President doing too much, more or less enough, or too little to get ... passed?" because you know that about right and too little are a sizeable plurality, ask some group are they "Red, or White or Blue?"

Who writes this stuff, any way, Mary Poppins? Polyanna? Forest Gump?

Posted by: ceflynline | October 26, 2009 9:43 PM | Report abuse

"Obviously, if over 35% are registered Democrats, and only 20% are liberal, then not all Democrats are liberal. "Blue Dogs" anyone?"

There is that third category, "moderate."

If the parties were both sharply defined by ideology, you'd expect to see all liberals on one side, all conservatives on the other, and moderates in both.

That pattern holds true for the GOP, although moderates are underrepresented there (71% conservative, 24% moderate). But the Democrats have a rough balance of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Democrats are more liberal than the country as a whole, but far more representative of the country than the Republicans.

The big surprise to me was that there are still 24% self-described "moderates" in the GOP. I guess they don't watch Fox News, or they'd have heard by now that they aren't wanted.

Posted by: nodebris | October 26, 2009 8:01 PM | Report abuse


Since "conservative" is an undefined, subjective term, this poll, if that's what is, is meaningless.

If "conservative" means low taxes and a strong national defense, I wouldn't be surprised if 89 percent of Americans self-identify as conservatives.

If, on the other hand, it means Von Brunn/Phalin/Westbrook Pegler lunacy, the number would be 20, the percentage of Americans who self-identify as GOPers according to a legitimate recent poll.

"20," according to most news organizations, is the most important number in politics.

Posted by: broadwayjoe | October 26, 2009 7:46 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if Nancy Pelosi every got the memo saying that most Americans are not liberal. Oh wait, she doesn't care because she never has to answer to most Americans--just her district in San Francisco. And you can tell by her policies THAT is one memo she did get. This is why the Constitution intended most powers to go to states or individuals themselves, not to the Federal government. The less power the Federal government and their bureaucrats have the better.

Posted by: sam38 | October 26, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

If I’m for the trickle up poverty of today’s NeoCom Statist Destructionist Party am I liberal or conservative?

Posted by: leapin | October 26, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Obviously, if over 35% are registered Democrats, and only 20% are liberal, then not all Democrats are liberal. "Blue Dogs" anyone?

On the other hand, if 37 or 40% are conservative, that doesn't square with only 20% being registered Republicans. Unless you realize that party affiliation is not one-for-one on the liberal-conservative question.

Posted by: mikenmidland | October 26, 2009 4:28 PM | Report abuse

whenever liberals get in a pinch their favorite tactic is to change the meaning of words. a poll that says only 20% of the public is liberal and 40% is conservative. change the meaning of the word!

globe starts cooling - easy! change global warming to climate change

killing babies not sound so good - call it choice

global war on terror belligerent? simple, change it to overseas contingency operations with man made disasters

taxes can't be raised - call them fees

stimulus leave you cold - stand by.

but this does seem to be somewhat effective on the 20% who are the dopes.

Probably communications majors.

Posted by: snowbama | October 26, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

I see quiff has arrived to enlighten us with ignorance. you have to be a lib to understand.

Posted by: snowbama | October 26, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

"Conservative" is a pretty fuzzy notion in America. According to the poll, for instance, 22% of Democrats self-identify as conservative. And the increase documented here was among Independents who, by definition, choose not to be Republican. So yes, as Chris says, "there may be slightly less to this data than meets the eye."

Posted by: nodebris | October 26, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The poll asked about "conseravative," wich includes two distinct political outlooks; one reasonable and legitimate and one stark raving lunatic. Rational believers in small government have very little to do with irrational screamers who stock up on bullets.

Posted by: GoldAndTanzanite | October 26, 2009 3:51 PM | Report abuse

the last desperate gasp of liberalism has had its 15 minutes. Obama is about to be run out of town with as many of his fellow kooks as will fit in a landslide defeat.

good riddance socialism.

I am salivating at the silly excuses we will hear next Wednesday.

Posted by: snowbama | October 26, 2009 3:24 PM | Report abuse

mikeinmidland writes
"The highest since 2004. Wow. That means conservatism (NOTE: not Republicanism) has recovered from Bush's 2nd term."

Interesting point. I suspect that some of the activity this summer from the TEA parties & such is really a cathartic release of pent up frustration at the Bush admin / GOP's failure to deliver on fiscally conservative principles. As the Fix notes, where conservative ideas gain the most support is in the size of government score. But the Bush admin / GOP didn't effectively address the size of gov't - gov't grew, measured in dollars, while delivering lower quality service. For taxpayers, ROI went down.

Posted by: bsimon1 | October 26, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

The Fix writes
"All of that is not to say that Republicans shouldn't take solace in these Gallup numbers. They should. But, context matters and the context suggests there may be slightly less to this data than meets the eye."

Put differently, when you're desperate for good news, anything will do.


Posted by: bsimon1 | October 26, 2009 2:40 PM | Report abuse

Last year, Obama told Berliners that we and they are "heirs to a struggle for freedom." This year, his administration has been busy trying to appease dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. So maybe he was wise to skip a return appearance in Berlin. Let Hillary Clinton gloss over the embarrassing contrast between his rhetoric then and his policies now.

Posted by: snowbama | October 26, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Armpeg, when you start with your conclusion in mind, almost any "facts" will get you there.

For your analysis to be anywhere near correct, you'd have to see a decrease at the Washington Post and NYTimes, which lean left, and the Washington Times and the NY Post, which lean right.

Yes, the Wall Street Journal is conservative, but it is primarily the paper of record for business, and therefore has a different business model than other papers.

And Fox News is a case apart because they are the only ones willing to preach to a delusional choir.

Posted by: mikenmidland | October 26, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse


Sorry, Chris, but the way I read it, the number of Americans who describe themselves as "moderates" or "liberals" dipped only slightly, by a statistically insignificant 3 percent over last year's numbers -- meaning that ideologically speaking, the nation remains basically a slightly left of center country.



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Posted by: scrivener50 | October 26, 2009 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Lemme see now.
According to this poll, only 20% of Americans describe themselves as liberals, yet liberals control the Main Stream Media by about 80%.
In todays Yahoo Finance section and on the Drudge Report is the news item that America's newspaper circulation is down by 10.6%. While the liberals excuse this as just Americans getting their news elsewhere because it's free, my guess is that there's a corelation here. If 80% of all of America's newspapers, reporters, journalists, editors, and publishers are liberal, and always report all news from a liberal perspective only, the American newspaper readers and purchasers are not liberal, so they don't buy their product. That's the real reason newspaper circulation is down by 10.6%, and why the WSJ and Fox News has had a steady increase of readers and viewers.
If WaPo and the rest of the Democrap Socialist Party--controlled Main Stream Media want to stop the hemorrhaging of their newspaper purchasers, they'd have to clean house, and get rid of their in-the-tank for Obama and the Democrap Socialist Party croonies that has had total control there.

Posted by: armpeg | October 26, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, Oboobma!!!

Posted by: thebump | October 26, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

This poll is more of a sign of what people in America think of the word "conservative" vs "liberal". Liberal has been demonized where as even democrats will say that they are fiscally conservative.

And as Nihao1 pointed out this increase is not translating to an increase in republican membership. I would imagine the far-right people in the GOP will use this to argue that the GOP needs to be more 'conservative' to attract these people. IMO, that is the wrong way to read this data, but I do hope they take it that way.

Posted by: AndyR3 | October 26, 2009 12:58 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty amazing how long Gallup has run this poll, which is actually pretty useless in trying to determine the ideological makeup of the general public. For one thing, do the majority of respondents actually know what being a "liberal" means? That word has been so heavily demonized in political discussion for the past 30 years that even some true liberals feel uncomfortable claiming the label (and instead go with "progressive.")

Does Gallup dig into the respondants' views on various issues to more accurately gage whether or not they actually *are* liberal, conservative or truly independent? Because that would actually be useful information, rather than this collection of data that does but show what label people feel most comfortable calling themselves.

Posted by: benniecsmith | October 26, 2009 12:43 PM | Report abuse

I was disappointed that you didn't mention the huge disconnect between what people self-identify as, and what their actual beliefs and positions are.
For instance 60% of people in this country are in favor of a public option, which the Right would tell you is "socialism", or, at the very least, extremely liberal.
Most people support repeal of Dont Ask Dont Tell, support minimum wage laws, more equitable income distribtuion, control of banks, withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistant etc. but would still protest that they were "conservative" or, at the very least "moderate".
If I were a Republican, I would be very careful before taking any real comfort from those figures.

Posted by: jimmywitz | October 26, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

More striking than this slight uptick in "conservative" self-identification is how stable the percentages of conservatives/moderates/liberals have been for the last 17 years.

Posted by: mnteng | October 26, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

What gives with the slant to Republicans on this blog, Chris? Don't you think you could do the Party more good by exposing the wrong directional thinking of the leadership than pumping up their chances to retake power?

The GOP is in greater danger of splitting than overcoming the Democrats' poll numbers. Reagan said the Democratic Party left him. These numbers show a huge number of Republicans feel this way about their party, too. No matter how much you support the Party, you aren't doing them any favors.

How about some balance in your blogging?

Posted by: PoliticalPragmatist | October 26, 2009 12:29 PM | Report abuse

A very important distinction is left out from this article. Conservatives are 40%, and Republicans are 20%. That means half the conservatives are NOT Republicans, though that group likes to label themselves as such. There are a lot of people like me that are conservative, not Republican, and not solidly on anyone's ideologial line. We are most accurately called Americans!

Posted by: nihao1 | October 26, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't read too much into this. Over the past 20-30 years, the term "liberal" has become such a dirty word, that very few people identify themselves as such, but when polled about specific "liberal" policies, a majority of people actually agree with them, including many folks who identify themselves as "conservative."

Posted by: jbentley4 | October 26, 2009 12:11 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, right. Abandon him for who, Ralph Nader??

Liberals + Moderates = 56%. Also Obama's approval rating. Coincidence? I think not.

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth on the right, Obama is a moderate and America knows it.

Posted by: mikenmidland | October 26, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

hmmm, liberals should abandon obama who is more of a conservative than moderate

Posted by: tru-indy | October 26, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

The highest since 2004. Wow. That means conservatism (NOTE: not Republicanism) has recovered from Bush's 2nd term.

Posted by: mikenmidland | October 26, 2009 11:31 AM | Report abuse

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