Is America shifting leftward? President Obama’s re-election and recent surveys provide some evidence that America is more centrist than center-right. A straightforward way to evaluate the question is to examine self-reported ideological identification. Some national surveys show moderates narrowly outnumbering conservatives among adults, but others show conservatives leading them. Liberals continue to lag both groups. When voters step into the voting booth, most describe themselves as moderate. Of the rest, more consistently say they are conservative than liberal. Still, the number of liberals in the electorate reached an all-time high in 2012 (25%), and the number of conservatives was very close to the all-time high point (36% in 1984 and 35% in 2012).
Why do voters tend to identify themselves as more moderate than they would otherwise? Voters may want to view their electoral decision as a reasoned choice unmotivated by ideology. Alternatively, voters may be comparing themselves to the candidates, viewing themselves as more moderate in comparison. Either way, the number of self-identified moderates has declined in the electorate since 2000 as conservative and liberal identification have risen. The data suggests a more ideological country overall.
Self-reported ideological identification is a blunt question, and when Gallup probes and asks people about economic and social issues, more people say they are conservative when it comes to economic issues than on social. What’s unclear from the Gallup question is what people believe the categories mean, i.e. what being conservative on economic issues means. But taking self-reported ideology at face value, America seems to be somewhere in between centrist and center-right.