US Elections: The Independent Factor
It seems strange that in a country where elections between Democrats and Republicans are consistently razor-thin, there would regularly be such large gaps between the two parties when they are polled. We may be able to explain this phenomenon by the increasing number of poll respondents who identify as Independents. According to a January, 2012 Gallup poll, 40 percent of Americans describe their ideology as conservative, compared to 35 percent who identify as moderate and 21 percent who identify as liberal. More information gathered throughout 2011 from Gallup indicates that an increasing number of self-described conservatives also identify as Independent, rather than Republican. While moderates had once dominated the Independent affiliation, the number of moderate independents has decreased since 2008, while the number of conservative independents has increased. In 2011, Independents where still mostly moderate, at 41 percent, but conservatives also made up a significant portion, at 35 percent. Only 20 percent of liberals identified as Independent.
Was the Poll Biased?
At first glance, it may seem that the ABC News/Washington Post polls misrepresented the country. When the ideological makeup of Independents is considered along with stated party affiliation, however, the split becomes more similar to the narrow divide we see during most national elections. Remember, the majority of poll respondents, 38 percent, identified as Independent. If 35 percent of these respondents lean conservative while only 20 percent lean liberal, the 10 point gap between the two parties in the polling demographics becomes more narrow.
An equal divide between conservatives and liberals is evident in the questioning, as favorability for Obama fell barely outside the margin of error, and Romney led when the same poll was conducted in March, despite a similar demographic spread between Republicans and Democrats.
Party Affiliation: Wording Matters
In a post-Tea Party and Occupy Movement United States, demographic data may be easier to understand if pollsters ask respondents whether they identify as conservative, moderate, or liberal, rather than Democrat, Republican, or Independent. The way demographics are currently analyzed, it is impossible to tell whether the Independents identify that way due to moderate beliefs, or beliefs that are so far to the right or left that they do not consider themselves Republican or Democrat.
The ABC News/Washington Post poll does not appear to be biased, as they contacted respondents at random through landlines and cell phones, but the methods they used to classify demographic data can make it seem as though Democrats were oversampled.
WP Politics. Washington Post-ABC Poll. Accessed May 23, 2012
Gallup. Conservatives Remain the Largest Ideological Group in the United States. Accessed May 23, 2012.
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