Is ‘Liberal’ a Dirty Word? More Democrats Say No
Policy + Politics

Is ‘Liberal’ a Dirty Word? More Democrats Say No

James Steidl

Throughout the Reagan-Bush era of the 1980s and early 1990s, “liberal” was often treated like a dirty word in politics. Even Bill Clinton shunned the liberal label in favor of the more centrist “New Democrat” when he swept to victory in 1992.

Times have changed. As the two major political parties and the country as a whole have become increasingly polarized, more and more Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents have begun identifying enthusiastically with liberal social views and economic policies.

A new Gallup poll published Thursday offers new insights into this political phenomenon, which may have important repercussions for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s drive for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination.

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Forty-seven percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents now identify as both socially liberal and economically moderate or liberal, compared to 30 percent in 2001 – a 17 point difference, according to the new survey.

These data were derived from Gallup's annual Values and Beliefs poll, which since 2001 has included questions asking Americans to rate themselves as conservative, moderate or liberal on social and economic issues, without asking for their stands on specific issues.

This overall group of self-described liberal Democrats and independents consists of 25 percent who are “pure liberals” -- that is, identifying as liberal on both social and economic issues -- and 22 percent who are social liberals but moderate on the economy. A mere 7 percent of Democrats consider themselves to be socially and economically conservative, while most other Democrats are a mix of ideological leanings.

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“Democrats have been moving left and Republicans have been moving right for decades,” University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato said on Thursday. “There is little ideological overlap anymore. What little exists is among economic moderates in the Democratic Party and social moderates in the GOP.”

Indeed, the overall percentage of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10 percent to 21 percent, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last year. “And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past,” Pew found. “As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished.”

Today, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican, according to the findings.

Gallup said that the leftward shift in views may well fit with trends on very specific issues, such as same-sex marriage.

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“Primary voters can vary from state to state, but broadly these national trends broadly suggest that Democratic candidates can be somewhat more left-leaning in their policy and issue prescriptions in the 2016 election campaign than in the past,” wrote Frank Newport, Gallup’s editor in chief.

Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination next year, faces a more liberal base than she did during her unsuccessful presidential campaign against Barack Obama in 2008. This gradual change may help to explain why she has been   recalibrating her positions on trade, immigration, income inequality and other economic and social issues to appeal more to her party’s activist left wing.

Last weekend, for example, she distanced herself from President Obama on his signature Asian trade legislation, which is overwhelmingly opposed by liberal Democrats and labor leaders.

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The shift in the electorate may also help to explain the excitement that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a liberal and self-described socialist, has been generating among Democrats in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

While Clinton has been touted as the odds-on favorite to capture the Democratic nomination, her lead over Sanders in New Hampshire is much narrower than it is in other states. Among voters who say they will participate in New Hampshire’s Democratic primary, 44 percent chose Clinton, while 32 percent picked Sanders, according to a recent Morning Consult poll.

Meanwhile, 8 percent favored Vice President Joe Biden, 1 percent favored former Virginia senator Jim Webb and virtually nobody supported former Rhode Island senator and governor Lincoln Chafee.

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