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Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Obama and Romney: Too Liberal or Too Conservative?

An interesting question in our recent USA Today/Gallup Swing States poll asked Americans to rate their perceptions of the relative ideological positioning of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The question asked if Obama/Romney were more conservative “than you,” about the same, or more liberal “than you.”

Among swing-state registered voters, the percentage saying each of the two candidates are “about the same" were similar: 34% said that Obama’s ideology was about the same as theirs, while 31% said that Romney’s was about the same. (I should note that 4% didn’t answer when asked about Obama and 10% didn’t when asked about Romney.)

Now this is interesting in and of itself. It means that at the outset roughly six in 10 voters in the swing states believe that Obama and Romney’s ideology is different than theirs. This reflects the polarized nature of American politics today.

But there are very interesting differences in the way these images of the two candidates play out.

Those who believe that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs overwhelmingly say that he is more liberal than they are. In fact, 54% of all Americans say that Obama is more liberal than they are, while 9% say he is more conservative than they are. Looked at differently, if we just examine the pool of those who say that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs, 86% of this group say he is more liberal than they are. Thus, basically in American politics today (or at least in the swing states), you either think that Obama is more liberal than you are, or that his ideology is the same as yours.

Naturally, this perception of Obama as being more liberal is driven by Republicans, almost eight in 10 of whom say that Obama is more liberal than they are. Importantly, independents also tilt that way, with 59% saying that Obama is more liberal than they are.

One would imagine that Democrats would be more likely to say that Obama shares their ideology.  This is generally the case, although not overwhelmingly so. About six in 10 Democrats say that Obama is about the same as they are. But, almost a quarter say Obama is more liberal than they are (14% say that Obama is more conservative than they are).

Now, for Mitt Romney, we see a quite a different picture.

All in all, 60% of Americans say that Romney’s ideology is different than theirs. (By way of comparison, remember that 63% of Americans say that Obama’s ideology is different than theirs.) So, just to reiterate, there isn’t much difference between the two candidates on this basis.

But Romney’s image position is, by no means, the mirror image of Obama’s.  It is not the case that Americans tilt just as strongly toward the belief that Romney is more conservative than they are as they do toward the belief that Obama is more liberal than they are.

The data show that 37% of all Americans say that Romney is more conservative than they are, while 23% say he is more liberal than they are. Thus, 62% of the pool of those who say that Romney’s ideology is different than theirs say he is more conservative -- compared to the 86% for the comparable number for Obama. Thirty-eight percent say that Romney is more liberal than they are.

Fewer Democrats say that Romney is more conservative than Republicans say that Obama is more liberal than they are (64% versus 79%). Independents mirror the sample average, tilting toward saying that Romney is more conservative than they are.

Here’s the interesting finding. One-third of Republicans say that Romney is more liberal than they are, while 13% say that he is more conservative.

It is clear, in other words, that Obama has a more sharply etched ideological image than does Romney. Most of those who don’t believe that Obama’s ideology is the same as theirs say he is more liberal than they are. The majority of those who don’t believe that Romney’s ideology is the same as theirs say he is more conservative than they are. But, unlike the case for Obama, there is a sizable minority, many of them Republicans, who say that Romney is not what you would expect -- more liberal than they are.

The key to the election this year -- as is always the case -- is two-fold: motivating turnout among the candidate’s core constituency and gaining support from voters who are not firmly committed to one or the other candidate.

Those voters who are not firmly committed to one or the other candidate are generally more centrist, and not rigidly committed to one ideological side of the spectrum or the other. The fact that Romney, apparently, has a less-fixed ideological image could, in theory, put him in a better position to gain the allegiance of more centrist swing voters. At least, that is one theory. The downside for Romney, of course, is that his more centrist image may dampen enthusiasm among conservative Republicans, resulting in a lower turnout and campaign effort among this group. 

This is the tightrope that both candidates are walking this year.  We've seen this in the last several days for Obama as he and his campaign team attempt to deal with the issue of gay marriage. Going too far in the direction of endorsing legalized gay marriage runs the risk of alienating possible swing voters and also some highly religious nonwhite voters within his Democratic core.  Not going far enough runs the risk of alienating other liberal voters within his Democratic core.  Romney faces the same issues from a different perspective, but does so with a modestly less rigid ideological image than his opponent.



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