The 2000 primary battle between Bush & McCain featured a notably less conservative primary electorate than in 2012. The Gore/Bradley primary electorate was similar to 2008. Images courtesy of Corbis.
Since the birth of the Tea Party Movement in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama in 2009, the American public has been subjected to claims by the media that the Republican party of today is more Conservative than the GOP of the 1980s and 90's, or even that of George W. Bush. But is that actually the case? Yes, at least based on the way Republican primary voters have viewed their own ideologies since 1996.
Sure, there have been studies indicating CONGRESSIONAL Republicans have become more Conservative, but have the rank and file followed their lead? A close examination of GOP primary exit polling from 1996-2012 indicates they have. In the 20 states where exit polling was conducted in 2012, Republican primary voters were split exactly into thirds between identifying as "very conservative," "somewhat conservative," or "moderate/liberal." To be exact, 34% of Republican primary voters identified their own political ideologies as "very conservative." That number ranged from a nationwide high of 49% in the Louisiana and Nevada primary contests, to a low of just 15% in Massachusetts (no surprise there). Meanwhile, 33% of Republican primary voters nationwide identified as "somewhat conservative", while the remaining 33% identified as "moderate or liberal." The "moderate/liberal" voters' largest share of the Republican electorate came in the Vermont primary (where they made up 53% of voters), Massachusetts primary (where they made up 49%), and New Hampshire primary (where they made up 47%). Conversely, moderate/liberals saw their smallest shares of the GOP electorate in Iowa (17%), Nevada (17%), and Louisiana (23%).
So there you have it: the ideological identity of Republican primary voters NATIONWIDE in 2012 was 34% very conservative, 33% somewhat conservative, and 33% moderate/liberal (based on the findings of the network's 20-individual-state exit polls). On its face, nothing sounds terribly conservative about that breakdown. Republicans are, after all, the national conservative party. So 67% of the national primary electorate identifying as at least somewhat conservative should probably be expected. But when you compare that split to the three previous Republican primaries in 2008, 2000, and 1996, you see the Republican primary electorate has become considerably less moderate or liberal, and considerably more conservative. See the chart below:
To see the math on how I compiled the above figures from exit polling, see this dataset