Thursday, February 28, 2013

Republican Primary Electorate Moves Right, Democrats Stationary (a look at primary exit polling, 1996-2012)

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

Moderate or liberal voters, as a share of the Republican primary electorate, have DECREASED from 40% in the 1996 primary to 33% in 2012. At the same time, "very conservative" voters have INCREASED from 22% in 1996, to 34% in 2012. So essentially, "very conservative" voters, as a portion of the entire GOP primary electorate, have increased by 50% since 1996, while moderate/liberal voters have decreased roughly 20%. Furthermore, the percentage of Republican primary voters identifying as "somewhat" or "very conservative" has grown from a low point of 55% in 2000, to 67% in 2012.

Past exit polling leaves room for one conclusion: the Republican party, as far as it is represented by the people who participate in the primary process, has grown MORE Conservative, with 2012 being the most ideologically conservative of the last 4 GOP primaries. Ironic, considering 2012 was the year Conservatives chose a squishy, technocratic Massachusetts moderate as their nominee. But in 2000, the year Republicans elected the charismatic, "compassionate conservative," the number of Republican primary voters identifying as moderate or liberal were at a near-twenty year high. In other words, the most conservative primary electorate since 1996 (as determined by ideological self-id) nominated Mitt Romney as their candidate, while the least conservative primary electorate since 2000 nominated George W. Bush. Go figure.

Yes, the Republican primary electorate is becoming more conservative as times passes, but in a so-called 'center-right' nation, is that really as big a deal as it sounds? If it is, would it be as big a deal as a Democratic Party that has become more liberal? Even more importantly, has the Democraticic become more liberal as the Republicans became more conservative? I'll consider national exit polling results from the 2008, 2004, and 2000 Democratic primaries to answer that question. Unfortunately, the Democratic data will remain inconclusive, as we haven't had a Democratic primary in 5 years.

As you can see in the chart below, contrary to what some may suspect, Democratic self-ideological i.d. remained amazingly static between the time Vice President Al Gore easily dispensed of New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley and the time President Obama burst onto the scene by toppling Hillary Clinton:

To see the math on how I compiled the above figures from exit polling, see this dataset

Unlike the Republican primary electorate, the Democratic electorate does not split evenly into thirds. In fact, a majority of Democrats identified themselves as "moderate/conservative" in each of the last three Democratic contests, though it was a fairly narrow majority, as liberals made up 46-48% of the primary electorate since 2000. As a point of comparison, in 2008, conservatives made up 66% of the national GOP primary electorate, while liberals made up 46% of the Democratic primary electorate.

What accounts for the more ideologically pure GOP, while most Democrats self-identify as moderate? A number of factors are at play, not the least of which is the fact that Americans, as a whole, identify more as "conservative" than "liberal." That fact has remained consistent since exit polling began:

Naturally, the more Conservatives in the general electorate, the more Conservatives you can expect in both the Republican AND Democratic parties. And that's exactly what we see in primary exit polling throughout the years. In a center-right country, the center-right party is going to have a lot of voters with a center-right (or conservative) ideology. 

Of course there are other factors at play to explain why the Democratic primary electorate is less ideologically pure than the Republican electorate. Whether a particular contest is an open, closed, or semi-open primary, whether a particular contest is competitive, as well as whether the opposing party has a competitive contest on the same day could all help explain the ideological purity differences in the Republican and Democratic parties. But the exit poll numbers make 2 things clear: 1) The GOP, at least since 1996, has identified themselves as increasingly conservative, while 2) the Democrats, at least from 2000-2008, remained surprisingly ideologically consistent. What we don't know is how a 2012 Democratic primary may have shaped up. Would Obama's liberalism, especially as compared to Bill Clinton's centrism, have caused primary voters to identify as increasingly "very liberal" or "somewhat liberal?" Unfortunately, we may not know the answer to this for sometime in the event Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, given that she is almost sure to clear the primary field. For the sake of new data alone, let's hope she doesn't.

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