John Locke Foundation: Faulty Gallup Poll Places Romney And Paul as Equally Moderate
January 3rd, 2012
The John Locke Foundation
By John Hood
RALEIGH – Most people don’t follow politics closely. Most people who do follow politics closely are highly ideological. That is to say, they are not like most people.
Political junkies know a great deal more about the candidates, parties, and actions of government agencies. That does not necessarily make them wiser about what government should do, however. To have well-formed opinions, you do not have to be able to rattle off the names of North Carolina’s last six governors (but if you ever find yourself at a party where such a feat might be impressive, the name “Jim” will come in handy as a mnemonic device).
One big difference between political junkies and everyone else is how the two groups use political labels. To political junkies, terms such as “conservative,” “liberal,” “libertarian,” “progressive,” “centrist,” and “populist” have precise meanings. They are not wedded to a simple X-Y axis description of political ideas that places liberals on one side, conservatives on the other, and everyone else in between.
In the American political system, of course, just about everyone recognizes that there will always been two “teams” slugging it out on any given Election Day. That’s because of our first-past-the-post, winner-take-all approach to apportioning political power. Third parties and independent movements rise and fall, but their influence comes either from displacing one of the two main parties or being absorbed into one of them.
To say there are two sides to political contests, however, is not to say that the two sides are ideologically coherent groups. In fact, they are coalitions of voting groups that disagree on many issues but work together on a few high-priority issues that unite them.
The existence of many different “flavors” of Democrat and Republican help to explain the results of a new Gallup poll on the presidential candidates. Gallup first asked voters to rate themselves on the X-Y axis of the standard, simplified model, with 1 meaning “very liberal” and 5 meaning “very conservative.” The average rating was 3.3, confirming the notion that, again using the standard model, America is a center-right nation.
Gallup then asked respondents to rate the candidates, including President Obama, on the same scale. Here are the average values:
2.3 — Barack Obama
3.3 — Jon Huntsman
3.5 — Mitt Romney
3.5 — Ron Paul
3.6 — Newt Gingrich
3.7 — Rick Santorum
3.7 — Rick Perry
4.0 — Michele Bachmann
Should we immediately reject any ideological measurement that gives Ron Paul and Mitt Romney the same score? Obviously the two candidates differ markedly not just in background and style but also on a host of domestic and foreign-policy issues. Yet the respondents saw them as equally less “conservative” than, say, Bachmann.
In reality, voters define terms such as “conservative” and “moderate” in a variety of ways. There are pro-tax voters who almost always vote Democratic but identify as conservative because they adhere to traditional values and go to church regularly. There are anti-tax voters who almost always vote Republican but identify as moderate or even liberal because they consider themselves to be “open-minded,” or disagree with the GOP platform on social issues. There are many other permutations.
When analyzing voting behavior, I prefer to use systems such as the Pew Research Center typology that employ more than three or four categories. I don’t always use these systems when writing about politics, though. I’d have to introduce and define the categories over and over again, given most readers’ unfamiliarity with them, and that would exhaust both my allotted space and the patience of my readers.
Still, we should all remember that any political shorthand that has the effect of equating the ideological positions of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul is a political shorthand with severe limitations.
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