The recent fight over raising the nation’s debt ceiling created much discussion about the apparent ascendance of conservative ideas and voters within the Republican Party. One example of this discussion is Nate Silver’s recent blog post about the increasing influence of conservative voters within the Republican Party. He notes more voters are identifying as conservative and that conservative voters are more likely to vote, even within the Republican Party . These conversations made me wonder whether voters in Pennsylvania, too, are increasingly identifying as conservatives.
Using data from 53 surveys of registered voters conducted by Franklin and Marshall College between 1992 and 2011, I constructed a two-decade trend line of conservative identification (see Figure 1). During the past two decades 36 percent of Pennsylvania voters on average have identified as conservative. To reduce some of the variation that results from using sample surveys, I’ve grouped the surveys chronologically according to presidential terms. These more stable, grouped estimates show there was little change in conservative self-identification between 1992 and 2008, but since the beginning of the Obama Presidency there has been a significant increase in the proportion of Pennsylvania voters who identify as conservative.
Figure 1 Self-Identified Conservative Voters, Pennsylvania 1992 – 2011
The increase in conservative self-identification has taken place among registered voters of both parties (see Figure 2). For Republicans, the increase in conservative self-identification started during President Bush’s second term and increased rapidly during President Obama’s tenure. Democrats show an increase in conservative self-identification during President Obama’s first term. Although not shown on Figure 2, Pennsylvanians who registered in other political parties also showed an increase in conservative self-identification during President Obama’s first term.
Figure 2 Self-Identified Conservative Voters by Party, Pennsylvania 1992 – 2011
Changing voter registration patterns in the state provide one explanation. Beginning in 2006, the number of registered Democrats in the state began increasing and the number of registered Republicans started to decline (see Figure 3). These changes in registration come not only from newly registered voters but also from voters who switched their party registration. According to a study conducted by Chris Borick at Muhlenberg College, those who switched from the Republican Party were ideologically diverse, with one quarter identifying as conservative, one quarter as liberal and the rest as moderate. The net effect of party switching in Pennsylvania is that both parties become more conservative, the Democrats a little and the Republicans a lot.
Figure 3 Voter Registration by Party, Pennsylvania 1960 – 2010
Changing party registration may explain the changes in the ideological makeup of partisans, but it does not explain why all registered voters became noticeably more conservative since 2008. One simple explanation may be economic—policy moods at the national level tend to be associated with economic conditions. If this is true, conservative identification will likely return to its normal level once the economy turns around.
Another explanation may be that some voters feel more conservative in response to perceived policy shifts at the national level. Many Obama Administration policies, such as the federal stimulus program and healthcare reform, have been portrayed as liberal initiatives. Perhaps voters who oppose such policies are influenced themselves by the labeling of those policies and consequently position themselves in opposition to them.
Evidence for this is a bump in the state’s conservative trend line in August of 2009 that has since persisted above the two-decade average. This is no coincidence: the summer of 2009 was the height of debate and confrontation over President Obama’s healthcare reform initiative. Legislative town-hall-meetings held during the August legislative recess drew large crowds of protestors who mostly opposed what they perceived as a “government takeover of healthcare.” This theme of liberal overreach on the part of the Obama Administration has persisted. It is hard to know what the long-term effects on ideology will be.
Whatever the causes of the shift in expressed ideology, the result is consequential. There is widespread consensus among academics that a state’s ideological composition relates to state-level policies. One need only look at Pennsylvania and the recent changes in state policy introduced by Governor Corbett for confirmation of this fact. As Pennsylvania voters have become more conservative so have the state’s policies.
Director, Center for Opinion Research, Franklin & Marshall College