Poll: U.S. More Conservative Now Than In 2008
JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
America is more conservative than it was a year ago. That's what a new Gallup poll says. The poll found that Americans are moving to the right on issues from government regulation to immigration to abortion. The percentage of Americans who believe that government regulations of firearms should stay the same or become less strict is at record high. GOP victories in Virginia and New Jersey earlier this week seem to support the study's conclusion that Americans are more conservative. But some analysts that while there's an ideological shift in America, it's not necessarily a swing to the right.
Later in the hour, we'll celebrate the birth of the Internet, 40 years ago last week, with a look at emoticons. But first: conservative America. We want to hear from independents and conservatives in our audience. Why do you call yourself conservative? Does it come down to your stance on a particular issue? Is there some broader ideological reason? Call us here in Washington. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our Email address is email@example.com. And you can also join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor is joining us here in Studio 3A. Welcome, Ron.
RON ELVING: Good to with you, Jennifer.
LUDDEN: So Ron, is America becoming more conservative?
ELVING: America is expressing a more conservative mood. I don't think there's any question about that. But I think this can be easily overstated if you don't look at the numbers themselves and if you don't look at the numbers over a bit of a stretch of time. For example, 2008, in November, approximately one year ago when we had the election that elected Barack Obama president, the numbers in this poll were essentially 37 percent conservative, 37 percent moderate and 22 percent liberal. That was the Gallup poll. And now just in the past week or so, we've seen the Gallup poll ask those same questions again - as they have been doing for about 20 years, rather large sample - rolling sample through the year.
And the numbers had moved one point with respect to moderates. And up three points among conservatives, which I don't think is terribly hard to credit if you've been watching the country over the last year, if you consider what the mood of the country was last fall and if you consider the mood to be today. The country was unhappy a year ago, it's unhappy today. And of course, the administration has changed, so people are pushing back against the administration and that means pushing back from the right.
LUDDEN: Now didn't the poll find - or when this movement, the three-point bump in conservatives - where is that coming from?
ELVING: It's coming from people who consider themselves independent voters, in the main, and a few conservatives who consider themselves Republicans. That is to say, a few people who consider themselves Republicans and went from considering themselves moderate Republicans to considering themselves conservative Republicans. The number among liberals, among people who are independent or moderate and shifted into or away from the liberal column, was two points.
LUDDEN: Okay, so, you're now bowled over by this but, you know, it's very interesting that when you look at issues, specific issues, the numbers did go up, you know, it looks, substantially - you know, several percentage points - five, six percentage points, more people favoring a decrease in immigration. More Americans considering themselves pro-life, you know, pro gun control - or, sorry, less gun control or keep it as it is. What does that mean?
ELVING: I think that there was a great deal of concern last winter on the part of gun rights advocates, Second Amendment advocates, that there was going to be a major move made against gun rights in America. And in fact, what we've seen in the last year, is a continuation of a long time trend, really since the year 2000, that Congress has moved to bolster gun owners' rights and away from gun control. That was going on through all the Bush years. It continued after the Democrats took over Congress in 2006, and for example, in recent months, we've seen the Congress liberalize the freedom to carry firearms in national parks.
That's been the biggest change that's been made with respect to gun owners' rights. But there was a tremendous publicity and campaign conducted last winter to suggest to people that their guns were, in some sense or another, under threat. A lot of people went out and bought guns, sales were reaching all-time highs last winter. And that energy has continued and people have felt, that in some sense, their rights are threatened - although it would appear, at least from the facts, that there is more threat in some of the campaigns that they're listening to than there actually is from Congress, where there seems to be no impulse toward gun control at all.
LUDDEN: Okay. Now, this week, we had elections, the big headline-grabbers were Governorships in Virginia and New Jersey. And it seemed a good day for Republicans. I mean, is this something that you see as bolstering the poll, here, or is this a different story?
ELVING: Well, I think they're both part of the same story. To a large degree, a country that remains unhappy, much it has been in the last several years, has a new government to be unhappy with. Now, the name you never heard mentioned on Tuesday, sensibly enough, was George W. Bush. George W. Bush has largely disappeared from the American political discourse. He's kept a very low profile and there is nothing to push back against in a presidency that's now a year in memory, or almost a year in memory. So now, if you are unemployed, or if you're worried about unemployment and the country's unemployment rate continues to rise; and if you're worried about economic uncertainty and people haven't forgotten the near collapse of our financial system a little over a year ago
And if you're just troubled by the entire change dynamic, whether it's technological or economic or social; you see everything seemingly changing; you notice that the work place has reached the point where half the people who have jobs in America are women - that's quite different from 30-40-50 years ago -where some of the main issues on the ballot are the permission of gay marriage - these are not the issues of 30-40 years ago. This represents considerable social change. And many people are discomforted by it or they are downright against it. And they are energized, in this era, not only by people who make it their business to energize them, but by the political dynamics of the day.
LUDDEN: Let's bring another voice into the conversation. David Weigel is a reporter for the Washington Independent. He covers the conservative movement and the Republican Party. And today he joins us from the studios of member station, WXXI, in Rochester, New York. Welcome to you.
Mr. DAVID WEIGEL (Reporter, Washington Independent): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
LUDDEN: So, do you believe America is becoming more conservative?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think America is becoming more populist. And right now, because Democrats are on every lever of the federal government - except for the courts, I suppose - it's a reaction, again - there is a bit of reaction against what's perceived as liberalism. That poll we saw, I mean, I think that reflects the way Americans have all - have felt about these issues for a very long time. But otherwise, I don't think you've seen much of a movement towards what in our - you know, our political context, you call conservatism, you've seen anti-corporate populism. I think if you walk around at a tea party event or talk to people who are angry at a town hall, they have complaints about how much money is being shoveled over to banks and the corporations and the car companies, and how they want to keep their health care, including their Medicare. That - neither of those are conservatives in the - in, you know, the very Goldwater-Ronald Reagan sense.
LUDDEN: So you call it populism?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think so. And I - I'm call - you know, I - in your - I'm in New York now because I was covering this election upstate - the New York 23 special election�
Mr. WEIGEL: �which was a three-way battle between a Democrat, a liberal Republican and a Conservative Party candidate, and the National Republican Party pushed the liberal candidate out of the race. So it was down to a Democrat, down to a Conservative Party candidate whose message was actually all about bringing jobs to the district, giving the fort whatever it needed, getting government off our back but nothing really - not so much - you know, he talked about less debt. That's something Ross Perot talked about, and I think it's tough to pin him down as a conservative. And in the end, this is a district that has not gone Democrat since - I want to get the president - I think yes, it was Ulysses Grant was president. That's the last time you had a guy with a D behind his name.
LUDDEN: A very long time.
Mr. WEIGEL: And Democrats, with a huge swing, picked up the district. Now, the Democrat talked about jobs. The Conservative talked about jobs. They weren't talking so much about ideology. They weren't talking about social issues in any real sense.
So that's what I see. I see economic angst manifesting as a populist backlash, and in some places, that's going to be against Republicans, some places against Democrats.
LUDDEN: And when you look at this Gallup Poll with people, you know, more likely to be anti-abortion and less for gun control, and more for keeping out immigrants and so forth, does that - how do you read that?
Mr. WEIGEL: Oh, I think that's economic angst. I mean, this is all very connected to the country being, not just in a recession since last year, but being in a period of increasing discrepancy in wages, gap between the rich and the poor, wages being pretty flat even during the, you know, GDP growth of the Bush years.
I mean, you've had alienation, economic alienation for a long time, and I mean, that - I mean, it's very easy to see the links between economic alienation and worry about jobs and increasing the anti-immigration sentiment. That rhetoric is always tied together. It was tied together when Pat Buchanan ran for president, both - well, he ran three times - but both times he ran as a Republican, that was the tie he made. And I - it's actually been off the back burner now just because it's so - you know, for all of those anti-immigration sentiments, it's been a terrible issue for Republicans. Republicans have been wiped out in the Southwest and in parts of Texas.
I mean, I think almost every part of the border, congressional district who's on the border of Mexico is represented by a Democrat now. So it's not something when you put the pedal to it, voters stick to. It's just that they're - they want to have a little bit of security back, and for the economy to be going again for them, for them to be able to job that lasts. So, you know�
LUDDEN: Ron Elving, what about this, less maybe ideological shift, that it's really economic distress we're seeing?
ELVING: I believe that. I also believe in what David was saying regarding populism. I think there is a great rejection of Washingtonism, if you will, the sense that the federal government is going to hold your fate in its hands in one way or another.
Some people want to have the government do more, quote-unquote �the government.� People are generally uneasy about the prospect, though, of some kind of federal, centralized government taking over things.
So anytime you use a verb construction like - should the government take over something - that's going to be received very negatively, and I don't think that's a huge change from the way America has been for a very long time. But right now, the way the issues are being framed, as David says, is by the Democratic Party and to some degree by its more liberal elements.
People are seeing, in this Gallup Poll, Barack Obama governing more as a liberal than a moderate. Many of them are unhappy about that. That's part of the shift to feeling more conservative. And many people feel that the Democrats who run Congress, Nancy Pelosi, some of the Democrats in the Senate, are too liberal, and so they're reacting against that.
LUDDEN: We're talking about conservatives this hour. Why do you call yourself conservative? Is it about your stance on issues, or a broader ideological reason, or the economy?
We're taking your calls at 800-989-8255, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Jennifer Ludden. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington. After Republican gubernatorial wins in New Jersey and Virginia and a Gallup Poll suggesting more Americans identify themselves as conservatives, is there a sea change? We're talking with NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, and with David Weigel, he's a reporter for the Washington Independent.
We also want to hear from you - conservatives, independents - what you call yourselves and why? Does it come down to your stance on an issue or a broader ideological reason? Give us a call at 800-989-8255, or email us at email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Let's get a call from a listener here. Lauren(ph) is in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Hi Lauren.
LAUREN (Caller): Good afternoon.
LUDDEN: What's on your mind?
LAUREN: Well, I think that right now, we need to clarify what conservative means. In my opinion, whether the government's local or, you know, the national government, I believe that government, when it's conservative, is doing less or just doing basic things like the defense, and infrastructure, and protecting our citizens; and I think when the government gets too involved in businesses and pushes back too far in the other direction is when conservatism becomes something that everyone says that they are.
LUDDEN: So are you - do you think of yourself as a conservative now?
LAUREN: Well, I'm more of an independent, but I do lean conservative. I don't think the government should be doing as much as it's doing right now.
LUDDEN: So are you talking about, like, the stimulus bill or propping up Wall Street? What's concerning you?
LAUREN: The stimulus bill and propping up Wall Street. The stimulus - they went very much too far in a direction that I don't consider conservative at all. And it started with Bush, and I don't think it was very conservative of the Bush administration to get involved in a war that I don't see any justification for. I mean, that seems like extremism to me, and a huge waste of the taxpayers' money.
LUDDEN: So Ron Elving, Lauren is suggesting it's really kind of semantics, and the meaning of conservative really switches with the times.
ELVING: We do have a problem with whether we're capitalizing conservative and talking about some kind of an ideology or whether we're just talking about the adjective, to be conservative, to be cautious, perhaps, to be careful, to conserve what the past has given us, what the traditional values of our country are. I think a lot of people�
LAUREN: �conservatism in government than represented by leaders who don't do more than they should, don't get involved in our bedrooms and in our - in things that they don't belong involved in.
ELVING: Lauren, may I ask: How do you feel about the word libertarian? Some people would say what you're describing is a more libertarian kind of attitude.
LAUREN: Well, perhaps it is. Perhaps it is, but you know, I guess it's kind of hard to peg someone like me. I like some aspects of conservatism, libertarianism, and that's what probably makes me an independent.
LUDDEN: Okay, Lauren, thanks for calling.
LAUREN: Thank you.
LUDDEN: We have an email here from Steve(ph) in Beaver Dam, Arizona. He says: You've got the paradigm backwards. The country's not moving rightward. If anything, it's moving leftward. The Virginia voting results illustrate this clearly. The reason the Republican won in that race is because young people, minorities and liberals, greatly disappointed by the unmet promises of change under Barack Obama, failed to show up to vote in droves. The disappointed Democratic base didn't show up, but the Republicans did in ordinary numbers, and thus the Republican won. If the Democrats continue to ignore their base, they're taking the wrong lesson and do so at their own peril.
David Weigel, what do you make of that?
Mr. WEIGEL: I think there's a lot to that. Creigh Deeds, who's the Democrat who just got walloped in that election, was the more conservative of the three Democrats who went for the nomination, and it seemed as though the campaign made a decision that because it would to get these Obama voters to turn out, they were going to go after more-conservative voters. And as I think we can all agree, it failed. But the Republican who won, Bob McDonnell, is very conservative, and the one time he dipped in the polls is when it was pointed out he wrote a graduate thesis when he was in his 30s - he went back to Pat Robertson's law school to write this - with extremely conservative views on gays, on the role of women, on marriage, things like that.
He dipped a bit. He responded just with a campaign of how to bring jobs to the area, building transportation up in Northern Virginia. And then, you know, building transportation, I think the last caller might say that's one thing that government shouldn't be obsessing over where to build trains and where to open up highways, but that's what this Republican was saying.
So I think Virginia has been a tough nut to crack for Republicans the last few years. They cracked it, not by talking about conservatism, just by talking about getting government running. Liberals blew it by not talking to their base. I think there's a lot there.
LUDDEN: Ron Elving?
ELVING: I think President Obama has disappointed many liberals, but if you look at the numbers - and polls of course are always suspect, it's only one way of measuring of how the public feels - but if you look at the polls from the people who voted on Tuesday, and if you look at the Gallup and some of the other large polls, they seem to show more people are surprised and disappointed that Barack Obama is not more moderate or more centrist. They think he has moved to the left.
Now, of course, people on the left do not feel that way, but people who are more in the middle or people who lean conservative but voted for Obama - and there were people who did that - those people are seeing him as moving in the opposite direction.
LUDDEN: And this is probably what the Gallup Poll picked up on, that group of people right there.
ELVING: Very much so. That's a very big part of this Gallup Poll.
LUDDEN: All right, well David Weigel, thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. WEIGEL: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
LUDDEN: David Weigel, a reporter for the Washington Independent. He follows Republican politics and joined us from member station WXXI in Rochester, New York.
Let's take another phone call from a listener. Casey(ph) is in Oakland, California. Hi, Casey.
CASEY (Caller): Hi, how are you?
LUDDEN: Good. What - tell us what your question is.
CASEY: Well, I guess I have more of a statement than a question.
LUDDEN: All right.
CASEY: What changed me to become an active conservative, if you want to call it that, or libertarian, if you want to call it that, was Ron Paul's actual campaign made me - cured my apathy, so to speak, and got me interested in all of that. And I think that's what a large portion of the conservative movement, it's kind of what started the tea parties movement, and it moved to some degree away from that. And if you go on the GOP's own Web site, the Ron Paul forum is the largest forum on there, with, like, 400 members last time I checked, and I just don't hear that mentioned a lot. And I think that, in that, we will not support just Republican candidates, we're looking for candidates with real conservative values.
LUDDEN: So were you - were you hoping that the conservative candidate in that upstate New York district would have won this past Tuesday, then? Were you disappointed when he did not?
CASEY: I'm not as familiar with that campaign, but I am familiar with Peter Schiff and Ron Paul's Senate campaign. They're both doing incredibly well, and Rand Paul, Ron Paul's son, has out-fundraised the incumbent Republican to date, I think his name is Trey Grayson.
LUDDEN: All right, well, Casey, thank you so much for calling.
CASEY: You're welcome.
LUDDEN: Let's get one more caller in before moving on. We've got David(ph) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hi, David.
DAVID (Caller): Hi. You know, one of your guests started to touch on something, or one of the callers, and that is to differentiate between the types of conservatives.
I'm a registered independent and have been for about eight years, and of course, my gripe with the Republican Party is they are too exclusive, and my gripe with the Democratic Party is they're too inclusive, trying to include too many people. But the type of - the way I describe myself - excuse me - is as a social conservative, but I'm very progressive on a lot of other issues.
And so I find myself at odds with a lot of my - I'm a born-again Christian - a lot of my Christian conservative friends, when it comes to a lot of other issues besides the social issues, then - I don't think I'm the only one. I was really encouraged to hear that there were more registered independents last election that Republicans. Is that true? And why do we not differentiate between the types of conservatives? We have - I mean, there are neocons, there are fiscal conservatives, there are - and some of them overlap, I understand.
LUDDEN: Well, David, I'm curious if you shifted in the past year. Now, we're talking, you know, in the past year - have you felt differently about some issue and maybe kind of weighed in differently that you did a year ago?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, here's a perfect example, and that - it's a fiscal responsibility. I believe that when we're in the kind of situation we're in economically, that it is up to the government to get the economy going. And when the economy does get going and people are capable of saving, then they're the ones that should be saving and not spending, and the government should cut back on its spending when the economy is going better.
LUDDEN: All right. David, thanks for calling.
Mr. WEIGEL: Okay, you bet.
LUDDEN: Let's bring in another perspective now. We have Sophia Nelson on the phone. She's a political analyst and blogger. She contributes to theroot.com and BET, and she's joining us from her home in Virginia.
Ms. SOPHIA NELSON (Political Analyst, The Root): Hi. How are you today?
LUDDEN: Good. What do you see happening in conservative America these days?
Ms. NELSON: Are you asking me conservative America or conservative politics?
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Ms. NELSON: Because I think those are different.
LUDDEN: Okay. We'll start with one and tell us.
Ms. NELSON: Well, for example, when I think of conservative America, if you will, I think of the teabaggers and I think of people protesting against health care because they don't agree with the government coming in to have a public option, et cetera, et cetera, or they feel like they're being taxed too much, the deficits are out of control. I see that as fundamental conservative values, core values, if you will.
And if I go into conservative politics, I think of the race in New York in the 23rd district, where the conservative candidate there was able to gain a lot of ground in less than 30 days and be able to effectively take the moderate Republican out of the running. She got a lot of pressure. Sarah Palin was there. Others were there campaigning for him. And you know, you saw the result, which I think is an interesting one.
LUDDEN: The person lost.
Ms. NELSON: Yeah, first Democrat in a hundred years, I think it was or something like that, if I have my facts straight. So - interesting.
LUDDEN: So they overshot. So I mean, do you - what lesson do you think they're going to take out of that?
Ms. NELSON: Well, I think, frankly, the New York race is an anomaly. I'm not sure you can read a whole lot into that other than it was a Republican district. Ms. Scozzafava, I think, was not a great candidate. You never drop out when you're, what, a few days away from the general election, when you're the, you know, the standard-bearer on one of the two parties - that's kind of crazy. And no matter what the pressure, she should have stayed in the race. And I think the result would have been the same, ultimately.
But I think that that's not a race I would look at a whole lot. The races I'm interested in and intrigued by are the ones here in Virginia and in New Jersey, because Bob McDonnell is about as conservative as it gets.
LUDDEN: He's the Republican candidate who's now going to be governor of Virginia.
Ms. NELSON: Right. And he did not run as a conservative though, at all. He did not talk about social issues. He didn't talk about being opposed to gay marriage. He didn't talk about being pro-life. He didn't talk about guns. He didn't talk about any of those social issue that tend to be hot button issues. And he ran instead as a fiscal conservative who's going to bring jobs, lessen taxes, get government off your back, all things that people feel very good about when an economy is in freefall and people are losing jobs and homes, et cetera. They want to talk pocketbook issues and transportation. So I think that McDonnell figured out very early on that he needed to go to the center in order to win Virginia back, and he really walloped Deeds. I mean, something like 16 points. It was a huge�
Ms. NELSON: �blowout. And same in New Jersey. Chris Christie was a moderate and only moderates win in New Jersey. You have Tom Kean and Christie Todd Whitman, who I worked for, as two examples of Republicans that win in that state. Conservative Republicans do not win in that state. They just don't. Too many independents, too many moderate voters.
LUDDEN: So Ron Elving, I guess Sophia says, you know, Republican Party shouldn't feel overly optimistic about this week's selections.
ELVING: Oh, I think that she sees the optimistic side of what Republicans should see in what happened on Tuesday, which is that the very conservative candidate, very conservative viewpoint on all issues across the board can prevail if it is carefully presented, if it's marketed correctly, if it's run to the center, or if it's run to wherever that state lives. Now, Virginia has moved from being a red state to being a purple state with several races in a row having gone Democratic.
We've probably reached a natural extent of that particular trend and we're probably going to see a little bit more of a Republican period in Virginia for a least a little while. And then we'll see how people feel about that after a few years and whether that holds up. But I think her remarks about New Jersey are exactly correct. That's what wins there, especially if you've got a governor who is personally unpopular, under 40 percent approval, has 10 percent unemployment, the highest property tax rates in the country, and bad corruption.
LUDDEN: Oh yeah, there was all that.
Ms. NELSON: You know, this reminds me of 1993 all over again. And I was in law school at the time. And Haley Barbour was chairman of RNC and I was interning there(ph), and I remember '93 and I remember when Christie Todd Whitman ran. And you remember, she almost defeated Bill Bradley in '90 and then she road out the anti-tax Florio sentiment for three years to take her to the governorship. That's how angry people were about what was going on in the Florio administration.
And then here in Virginia, George Allen won in a resounding victory and he was not at all supposed to win that race. Mary Sue Terry, I think, was his opponent and the Democrats were - you know, it had a lock on the governorships here and, you know, George Allen broke it wide open. And I think that the danger for the Democratic Party is, they honestly have to stop being on the defense and take a hard look at this. While I agree these are local races, what both Republican candidates did was they figured out the center and the independents were the place to be.
I don't know if polling told them, I don't know if common sense told them. But we know that the president has lost as much as 10 points from poling I've seen over the last number of months with independent voters in the wake of the health care and the, you know, the town hall meetings and everything that went on. And I think that you're going to have Blue Dog Democrats, conservative Democrats, if you will, particularly in some of these states like Arkansas, Indiana, where you've Blanche Lincoln up. You've got Evan Bayh up. I think you're going to see some real concern on the part of those Democrats to try to pass health care now. So I think that this election had huge implications.
But the lesson that I'd like the Republicans to learn is not to say, oh, we need to be - we need to go to the, quote-unquote "right" and we need to be exclusive. They need to look at the McDonnell model in particular because he's extremely conservative - I mean, very conservative, if you look at his record�
LUDDEN: All right.
Ms. NELSON: �truthfully and otherwise. And he just didn't run that way.
LUDDEN: Let me just jump in to say you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
We have time for one quick call out now. Let's go to Jack in Nashville, Tennessee. Hi, Jack.
JACK (Caller): Hello. I think you're missing the problem altogether.
LUDDEN: That's why we asked you.
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JACK: �(unintelligible) more conservative is because the American public is under assault. We're heading towards 10 percent unemployment. We're facing seven million foreclosures - seven million more houses in foreclosure. And what's going on? Wall Street, the same people who committed criminal fraud, are paying out the biggest bonuses, in some cases, they've ever paid out. And so the Democrats are the problem and the Republicans are the problem. And reason people are conservative is that they're afraid. We almost had a Great Depression and nothing is being done to remedy that situation. The exact same things that were going on before Lehman Brothers collapsed are going on right now.
LUDDEN: All right. Jack, thank you very much for calling.
Ron Elving, a lot of frustration and anger out there.
ELVING: Yes. And as I mentioned earlier, people are going to push back against whoever is in power. And as long as that anxiety remains, that pushback is going to get stronger.
LUDDEN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. And we were also joined by Sophia Nelson, a political analyst and blogger for theroot.com and BET.
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