After the election, I heard a lot of people say things like “Man, this country is really different from how I thought it was.” I kind of felt like this myself. After all, when I look around at my friends, my family, my co-workers, and my social media circles, I see mainstream Democrats, radical liberal activists who think the Democratic party doesn’t go far enough, “left leaning” moderates, and a few moderate conservatives who just are as horrified by Trump as I am.
It’s easy for someone like me to fall into the trap of thinking that this is basically what America looks like. To many of us the idea that there could be over sixty million Americans who would vote for someone like Trump just seemed preposterous. But that’s exactly what happened.
Politics and Football
Imagine you are a football coach, and it’s halftime of the Superbowl. You need to come up with a plan for the second half. Do you stick with what you’ve been doing, or change up your strategy? Do you play it safe and try and run out the clock, or take risks and try and score as many points as possible?
First and foremost, you need to know a one very important thing: what’s the score? If you don’t know that, you can’t plan for the rest of the game. If your team is getting crushed, you probably don’t want to play it safe. If you’re winning by a ton you probably don’t want to suddenly start calling a bunch of risky trick plays.
The fact that Trump’s (narrow) victory caught so many of us liberals by surprise suggests that maybe we didn’t have a good idea of what the “score” really was. Many of us thought we were ahead by a touchdown, when in reality, the game was tied. We don’t want to get surprised again.
If we want to change how Americans think and act in the future, we need to know how they think and act now. We need to know what the “score” is. That's easier said than done, but we can start by asking two basic questions:
- How many Democrats, and how many Republicans, are there in America?
- How many Liberals, and how many Conservatives, are there in America?
To answer these questions we turn to the 2016 American National Election Survey, or “ANES” for short. ANES is a long running survey, which is asked every election year to a representative sample of Americans. It includes lots of questions about voting behavior and political attitudes, and is one of the most respected sources of data on American politics among political scientists and pollsters.1
First Question: How many Democrats are there in American? How many Republicans?
To answer this question we’re going to look at what Americans say about whether they think of themselves as Democrats or Republicans, rather than try and figure out whether they are actually registered as members of one party or the other.
When we look at the 2016 ANES, here’s what we find:
It looks like there are more Democrats than Republicans in America, and about a third of Americans aren’t affiliated with either party. But political scientists have found that, recently, political independents in America have been more likely to vote for Republicans than for Democrats. We see this in the 2016 ANES as well. Although this survey was conducted before the 2016 election those independents in the chart above were more likely to have voted for Romney than for Obama in 2012. If we call independents who voted for Romney in 2012 "Republican leaning," and those who voted for Obama "Democrat leaning," we get a slightly different picture:
In 2016, around 45% of Americans were either Republicans, or leaned that way and around 48% of Americans were Democrats, or leaned that way. That's pretty much even, and it’s been this way for a while. In Obama’s “landslide” 2008 victory he only won 52% of the popular vote. Compare that to the 1936 election, where FDR won over 60% of the popular vote.
Now, here are the results for the popular vote in the 2016 election:
The election results in 2016 are almost exactly what you would expect if everyone just voted for their “favorite” party’s nominate. So the really “surprising” thing about the 2016 election was how closely the vote breakdown mirrored Americans’ party preferences, despite the craziness of the election itself.
Even in an election as bizarre as 2016, you can usually count on “around half” of voters supporting the Democratic candidate and “around half” supporting the Republican candidate. Of course, the devil (and the election results) are in the details of what exactly we mean by “around half.” A candidate who wins 52% wins in a “landslide,” but one who only wins 48% loses.
Question 2: How many Liberals are there? How many Conservatives?
Not all of us define our political views in terms of parties, but instead call ourselves “liberal” or “conservative” In the 2016 ANES, people were asked if they think of themselves as "liberal," "conservative" or "moderate." Here are the results:
In 2016 more Americans considered themselves “Conservative” than “Liberal.” This has been true in America since at least the 1930's - the earliest period we have data for. So as far as we know, Americans have always been more likely to consider themselves Conservative than Liberal.2
However, what Americans call themselves doesn’t always match up with what they actually believe.
The political scientist James Stimson, who was one of my dissertation advisers, has found that if you ask Americans a bunch of specific questions about what sorts of thing they think the government should be doing, you find that most Americans, and even many self-identified "conservatives" think the government should be doing more. Most Americans are, to use Stimson’s term, “operational liberals,” meaning that they tend to support liberal policies.
For example, the 2016 ANES asked Americans if they think the government should be spending more or less money on health care, or to help working parents pay for child care. Here’s what we find:
This chart shows that a majority of Americans want the government to be spending more money on helping working parents afford child care and even on health care, despite the unpopularity of “Obamacare.” In fact, according to the 2016 ANES around 13 percent of Americans both identify as conservative and want the government to be spending more money on health care. This is not a recent phenomenon. As far as we can tell, most Americans have always wanted the government to do more.3
This seems like a paradox - Americans are more likely to think of themselves as conservative, but they're also more likely to have liberal views on what the government should be doing. In fact there are a large number of Americans who have policy views that most of us would classify as “liberal” but who prefer to call themselves “conservatives.” James Stimson calls these people “conflicted conservatives.” Combining data from a number of different surveys asked over a number of years Stimson and his colleague Christopher Ellis estimate that the American electorate breaks down to something like this:
These are rough estimates,4 but they suggest that true “small government” conservatives (called "consistent conservatives" in this chart) are pretty rare in America, but almost of a third of Americans may be “conflicted conservatives.” Critically, these conflicted conservatives are more likely to vote for Republican candidates, despite their liberal policy views. You can see from the chart that there are also some “conflicted liberals” – who call themselves “liberal” but want the government to do less, but there are not very many of them.
For Many Americans, "Liberal" is a bad word
Political scientists think that, for many Americans, the word the word “liberal” has all sorts of icky connotations: “lazy” racial minorities living off of public assistance, social unrest, atheism, “PC” culture, and disrespect for traditional values So even though these conflicted conservatives actually approve of a lot of what liberal politicians want to do, they have an emotional aversion to “liberals” as a group. This is more than just people being “social conservatives,” and identifying as “conservative” purely because they are pro-life and are opposed to gay marriage. That’s part of it, but there’s more. This isn’t just about policy, it’s about emotion.
Think about how you feel when you hear the word “conservative” (assuming you identify as “liberal”). Does that word produce any emotions in you, aside from your views on specific policies? When I hear the word “conservative” I automatically think of fat cat CEOs who screw over their workers. Maybe you think of ignorant, “rednecks,” who drink terrible beer and beat their wives, or racist southern cops attacking Black protesters in Selma and Montgomery. Even when I’m trying to think rationally about what sorts of policies I support, I can’t help thinking some of these things when I hear the word “conservative.” It’s an automatic reflex.
Does this sound familiar to you? This is how most Americans feel about the word “liberal.” There’s something about the way we liberals act, the way we talk, and the way we live, that rubs many Americans the wrong way. That doesn’t mean they’re right and we’re wrong, but it’s something we should acknowledge.
Conclusion: What’s the Score?
If you look at it one way, the score is basically tied. Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives - there are roughly equal numbers of Americans on each side of the political divide. This is an important thing to keep in mind as we move forward. Conservatives, and the Republican Party, are just as big a part of America as we Liberals and Democrats are. We can “rally the base,” but so can they, and their “base” is probably just as big as ours.
However, the more interesting thing we’ve learned here is that liberal policies (at least economic policies) are more popular than liberal culture. This is a really important thing to understand, and it helps to explain why a politician like Trump, who advanced a lot of “progressive” sounding economic ideas (getting rid of the TPP, spending more on infrastructure, etc.), but who also attacked liberal culture, did so well.
If our political goal is to have the government do more to help the poor and reduce inequality, then we’re in luck - the majority of Americans already agree with us!
On the other hand, one big reason that we’re having so much trouble actually making these changes is that the majority of Americans don’t like liberals. Something about liberal culture is standing in the way of liberal policy agenda. The problem is not our policies, it's us.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily mean we liberals have to change how we behave or act. But it does mean that, if we want to enact the sorts of policies we favor, we need to do a better job of convincing American conservatives that we “liberals” aren’t as awful as they think. And that's not something we've spent a lot of time trying to do. Maybe it's something we should work on.
1 I ran these analyses using 2016 ANES "pilot survey" because the main 2016 ANES survey isn’t available yet. Unlike normal ANES surveys (which are done using probability sampling), this pilot survey uses an opt-in internet panel sample. Opt in internet samples are not great, and I usually advocate that people avoid them. However, the trends I discuss in this post have been widely noted by political scientists for many years and you would see basically the same relationships I show here in other recent high-quality surveys of American political views (including past ANES surveys), although the precise numbers would differ slightly. You can download the ANES data yourself here. All analyses were run using weights, which help to make the opt-in panel more representative of America as a whole.
2 Check out the books “Ideology in America” and “Class war” in the references below for more on Americans' longstanding preference for “conservative" self-identification.
3 At least when you ask them about specific policies. Many Americans may not say they want “bigger government” in the abstract, but still want the government to be more, rather than less, involved in almost every aspect of the economy. Again see both of the books below for more on Americans' broad support of liberal economic policies.
4 This chart, which was presented on page 96 of “Ideology in America” excludes people who don’t classify themselves as either Liberal or Conservative.
Ellis, C., & Stimson, J. (2012). Ideology in America. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Stimson, J. (1999). Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles and Swings (Second ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
Page, B. I., & Jacobs, L. R. (2009). Class War: What Americans really think about Economic Inequality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.