Thursday, February 18, 2016

Who Knew?

In the last few days, Ross Douthat and a news story in the New York Times have talked about a what they present as a surprising discovery--that a lot of Republicans are not "consistent" conservatives.  This is actually one of the main findings of early survey research from the 1940s and 1950s.  There are not many people who have liberal or conservative (or moderate) opinions across the board--most people have a mix of liberal, conservative, and moderate opinions, with a few extreme left or right positions thrown in.  This is true even of party loyalists.    Party loyalty is often based on a sense that one party is smarter, more honest, or cares more about "people like me" rather than an examination of the issues.  And most people don't pay that much attention to politics--they may not even know they have the "wrong" position on some topic, and even if they do they don't worry about it much.

I'll present a few figures from a 2014 Pew survey.  One of the questions asks "what do you think is more important--to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership."  Another asks "do you think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, or illegal in all or most cases."  Both of these are issues which sharply divide the parties and have been prominent for a long time.  A cross-classification of opinions follows:

                            C                    L

                    L     23%             28%
                    C    33%              16%

That is, 61% (33+28) hold "consistent" positions--liberal or conservative on both.  39% are liberal on one and conservative on the other.  There is some association between the two opinions, so the number of "consistent" liberals and conservatives is higher than you would expect from chance alone. But this is just two different opinions--if you took the top five or six issues, or even "social issues," few people would be liberal on all or conservative on all.

The association between opinions is stronger among more educated people and people who follow politics more closely.  For example, the survey contains a question about how often people vote in congressional primary elections.  Among those who say they "always" do, the percentages are like this:

                            C                    L

                    L     20%             36%
                    C    34%              10%

That is, 70% are consistent.  The association would presumably be even higher among people who write about politics, and of course they're the ones whose voices usually get heard.  So the rediscovery that consistency is low among the general public always comes as a surprise.

Beyond that. it's always seemed to me that many people are suspicious of ideology and would be attracted to someone who makes a point of having some unexpected positions.  I hadn't been able to find any questions on that issue, but I gave it another try, and found one from ABC News/Washington Post:  "Do you think the Republican nominee for president should take only conservative positions on issues or do you think it is OK to have the Republican nominee for president take moderate positions on some issues? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?"  The question was asked of Republicans in 2011 and 2015:

                                                                 2011                 2015
Only conservative, strongly                      17%                  11%
Only conservative, somewhat                     9%                    8%

Some moderate, somewhat                        35%                  25%
Some moderate, strongly                           32%                  47%

I had expected the balance to be in favor of some moderate positions, but was surprised at how lopsided it was.

[data from the Roper Center for Public Opinion Researc]

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