Beware of “record” numbers claims in a headline

The headline du jour: The Number of Americans Identifying as Liberal Jumps to Record High.

Why am I calling for a skeptical view? Because, ladies and gentlemen, there are more adults in the U.S. this year than last year. So even if the percentages remained constant, there would be “more” of whatever is being measured.

In today’s story, Gallup claims a 1% increase in the number of people who self-identify as liberals:

Americans continue to be more likely to identify as conservatives (38%) than as liberals (23%). But the conservative advantage is down to 15 percentage points as liberal identification edged up to its highest level since Gallup began regularly measuring ideology in the current format in 1992.

The key to any year-to-year comparison is to use a deflated measurement, which is often a simple percentage. With a 1% increase in the number of people who self-identify as liberal, Gallup’s statement seems true. But is it?

For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level.

The sampling error means that today’s liberal state could be 22% — the same as last year’s — or 24%.

Gallup’s data show that America is pretty evenly (over time) divided in terms of self-identification of party. The range shows that the biggest change over time has been in people who self-identify as moderate — a drop in 9 points:

  • Conservative: 36% (1992) to 40% (2011) — 4 point change
  • Moderate: 43% (1992) to 34% (2013) — 9 point change
  • Liberal: 17% (1992) to 23% (2013) — 6 point change

The more interesting question coming out of Gallup’s poll is this: “why do fewer American identify as moderate today than 20 years ago?” The answer might be found in the positions of the parties or it might be in the types of political rhetoric that media choose to broadcast. Or that the cultural meaning of each term has evolved (my bet).

gallup poll

How Americans self-identify, politically – Gallup, Jan 2014

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14 Comments

  1. One problem with polls like this has to do with how people respond to words like liberal and conservative. What are the definitions that come to mind? The word, “conservative” at face value conjures up tradition, caution, and even conservation. None of those seem very embedded in current “conservative” values as practiced by the GOP. Meanwhile, the word, “liberal” suggests broadminded, generous and progressive values and ideas. Most “liberals” today strike me more as republican-lite than they do liberals of the past. Just my 2 cents.

  2. Hi Kathy, Interesting…as most polls are for the moment. :)
    I noticed in the written comparison, the conservative marker only measures up to 2011..why is that?
    I think the label liberal has taken on a bad connotation. It almost sounds like you are admitting to being a far leftist.
    I think the drop in Moderate is due to the fact that people have nothing to compare it to. What is center now? If I was asked if I was liberal, moderate, or conservative I would answer liberal, even though I might be a “radical” because to me the center has shifted and” moderate” conservatives is a “new term”.

  3. Everybody knows there is no such thing as a far left.

    Move to California and we will prove it to you.

  4. Of course all lefties in CA are “far left”. If you go any farther you’re in the Pacific Ocean!

  5. True, JSpencer. Perhaps that is why some many Cali folks are Californicating Oregon and Washington. Let alone Hawaii, Nevada, Idaho and Arizona. California is coming to everybody.

  6. Well, they don’t seem to be here yet Kevin. Maybe someone forgot to put out the welcome mat. ;-)

  7. Ha! I have been here for 58 years, so as I look back I can see California changing in twenty year increments; and they seem fast. It was so beautiful in the 1960s and 70s. Sounds like you are doing the right things. I’ve been steamrolled. But it’s not all bad. I did read the paper this morning in seventy degree sunshine. Not a cloud (not even smog) in the air :)

  8. Everybody knows there is no such thing as a far left.

    Far left still has a few enclaves in Berkeley and SF. What they lack in numbers they make up for with intensity, as expected of the Far Left :) They actually manage to push my buttons with as much precision as Rush, FOX, Coutler et al…

  9. Far left still has a few enclaves in Berkeley and SF. What they lack in numbers they make up for with intensity, as expected of the Far Left :) They actually manage to push my buttons with as much precision as Rush, FOX, Coulter et al…

    Having lived 50 years (20 as a card carrying Republican) 20 minutes from Berkeley and 35 from San Francisco I have trouble buying this Far Left enclave story.

    I know firsthand (as a witness not a participant ;) ) the history of the far right in the Bay Area and your inferences are simply wrong.

    As a kid I skipped school to see Mario Savio, Peoples Park… As a young adult I cleaned the Gestetner Duplicating machine for the Black Panthers… As an adult the SLA torched a house in my ‘first in area’ so I know what the Far Left looks like.

    IMO, it’s extremely unfair to paint this area with that kind of a brush and I’m curious for some examples… Just where do you find these Far Left ‘enclaves’ that “manage to push [anybody's] buttons with as much precision as Rush, FOX, Coulter et al…” in this day and age.

    From your comment it seems that you a) are a very young republican that is put off by coffee shops without a Starbucks sign; b) don’t actually live in the area; c) young people, collage students, pan-handlers and a lot of foot traffic scare you; or, d) Your radio is tuned 24/7 to KNEW.

  10. Edit to add: Here’s the Wikipedia ‘highlights’ on Berkeley – 1970s to present… It’s a diverse though very expensive (cost of living) collage town.

  11. Oh, I’m just generally suspicious of political self-identification.

  12. Berkeley is strongly identified with the rapid social changes, civic unrest, and political upheaval that characterized the late 1960s. In that period, Berkeley—especially Telegraph Avenue—became a focal point for the hippie movement, which spilled over the Bay from San Francisco. Many hippies were apolitical drop-outs, rather than students, but in the heady atmosphere of Berkeley in 1967–1969 there was considerable overlap between the hippie movement and the radical left.

    What! The radical left, left :) Where did they go? Or, did they purchase property and rediscovered the love of money and government. If Bill Ayers can be viewed as a moderate I guess Berkeley can too. Too funny.

  13. Berkeley is the site of the University of California, Berkeley, the oldest of the University of California system, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It is also home to the Graduate Theological Union. The city is noted as one of the most politically liberal in the nation.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berkeley,_California

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