America’s Extreme Political Makeover

J. T. Young
Posted: Jun 29, 2010 12:11 PM

A recent poll revealed some startling facts about America’s political perceptions. Which party does America see as the most extreme? The Democrats. That answer is surprising, not only by its margin, but in the recent and dramatic change in viewpoint. And the answer is even more important, because nowhere does perception equal reality more than in politics.

USA Today/Gallup released a recent nationwide poll (6/14) of the public’s perception of the two parties’ ideological views. Surveying 1,049 adults (5/24-25, margin of error +/- 3%), pollsters asked a simple question: “Do you think the political views of the Democratic/Republican party are – too conservative, about right, too liberal?”

Respondents rated both close to equal in the center. The “about right” score for the Democratic party was 38% and 41% for the Republican party. It was at the ends of the spectrum where responses diverged the most.

While 40% of respondents rated the Republican party “too conservative,” 49% said the Democratic party was “too liberal.” Rounding out the survey, 10% felt the Democratic party was “too conservative” and 15% thought the Republican party was “too liberal.”

What do these figures tell us? If the fulcrum of American politics is in the center, both parties need to grow there, with Republicans having a slight 3% headstart.

Glenn Beck

The most interesting figures are at the positions which respondents implicitly label “extreme”: “too liberal” for Democrats and “too conservative” for Republicans. Here Democrats had a decided 9% deficit – with just under half of respondents identifying them as too ideological.

Equally compelling is how this perception has changed over time. In 1999, just over a third of respondents (36%) saw Democrats as “too liberal” and almost four in ten (39%) rated Republicans “too conservative.” Eleven years later, popular perception of Republicans is virtually unchanged, while perception of Democrats as “too liberal” has skyrocketed.

Since 1999, Republicans’ extreme score peaked at 43% in 2008. Thus over the last two years, the public’s perception of the GOP as extreme has dropped slightly. In contrast, Democrats’ extreme score is now at its highest point in the last eleven years – increasing 10% in just two years!

The two parties have done more than just switch places in the public’s mind. While Republicans have stood relatively still, Democrats’ position has moved dramatically – opening the largest gulf between the parties since 1996.

That gap has opened despite mainstream media coverage. Widely viewed as more favorable to a liberal viewpoint, this should have had some dampening effect on public perception – making a liberal stance seem less…well, liberal. And this should have been particularly true over the last two years, when mainstream media coverage has especially favored the liberal perspective. Yet it was precisely during this period when the public shifted the most in its opinion of the Democrats.

The public’s perception of the Democrats as “too liberal” has essentially swum upstream – or rather, against the mainstream media. It occurred at a time when being liberal was as favored as it has been for some time.

There is reason for the Democrats to be fearful of this perception gap. American elections are won in the center of the electorate. As proof, consider 2008. Obama won by the largest margin of any Democrat since 1964. That means the 2008 electorate was likely skewed toward the liberal to moderate perspective. Even so, exit polls recorded the it as just 22% liberal, 44% moderate, and 34% conservative.

A Democratic candidate therefore must overcome the fact that the liberal bloc is by far the smallest of America’s three ideological camps. Obama did so by winning 60% of moderate voters.

Assuming the electorate itself has not become more liberal, its change in perception puts the Democratic party not just as more extreme, but at the end of the ideological spectrum that least reflects its opinion.

Democrats’ concern should be twofold. How to change the public’s current perception in the less than five months before November’s election? And even more, what if the trend of the last two years is maintained – widening further the gap between the parties?

There has been a public perception makeover of the two parties. Right now, it doesn’t look good for the Democrats.