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Is Conservatism the Dominant Political Creed in America?

By Alan Abramowitz

“Conservatism is the dominant political creed in America.” That’s what Karl Rove, George Bush’s longtime political advisor and newly appointed Deputy Chief of Staff, recently told a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Rove urged the assembled activists to pressure the Republican Party to continue the conservative policies that he claimed have led it to victory in recent years.

Not surprisingly, Rove’s comments were received enthusiastically by his conservative audience. But was he correct in claiming that, “conservatism is the dominant political creed in America”? If you judge by the political make-up of the Bush White House staff and cabinet you’d certainly think so. But an examination of the political views of the American electorate reveals that Rove’s claim is incorrect. In fact, the dominant political creed in America today is neither conservatism nor liberalism but centrism.

During 2004, the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan interviewed a representative sample of voting age Americans before and after the presidential election. The 2004 National Election Study (NES) survey, which was the most recent in a series that began in 1948, included a much larger number and variety of questions about domestic and foreign policy issues than a typical media or exit poll. As a result, it is ideally suited to measuring the political views of the American public.

Based on their answers to 16 questions in the 2004 NES survey, I classified Americans as strong liberals, moderate liberals, moderates, moderate conservatives, or strong conservatives. The questions asked about such issues as abortion, gay marriage, health insurance, government responsibility for jobs and living standards, the overall level of government spending and services, the death penalty, defense spending, reliance on diplomacy vs. military force in foreign policy, government assistance to racial and ethnic minorities, gun control, and the role of women in society.

Very few Americans held consistent views on these 16 issues. Only 9 percent were strong liberals and only 8 percent were strong conservatives. 83 percent of Americans were found in the three middle categories: 22 percent were moderate liberals, 24 percent were moderate conservatives, and the largest group by far, 36 percent, were moderates who took about as many conservative positions as liberal positions.

Graph of Recoded 16-Item Libcon Policy Scale

Liberal/conservative scores strongly predicted presidential voting. 99 percent of strong liberals voted for John Kerry while 98 percent of strong conservatives voted for George Bush. But the votes of these two groups cancelled each other out. It was the three middle categories that provided George Bush with his margin of victory in 2004—he received 54 per cent of the vote from these centrist voters.

George Bush did not win the 2004 election because a majority of Americans embraced his and Karl Rove’s conservative philosophy. He won because he did slightly better than John Kerry among the large majority of the electorate found at or near the center of the ideological spectrum where American elections are almost always decided.