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Behind the Numbers
Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 07/10/2008

The Flip-flopping Flap

The flap over Barack Obama's recent public statements about his policy positions on Iraq and the FISA bill have led many to wonder whether the Illinois senator will be able to hold on to liberal Democrats he won over in the primaries while also wooing the independents and moderates who could put him over the top in the general.

But liberal Democrats have historically been a pretty steadfast group, and there is little evidence that pattern is likely to change this year. Network exit polling first measured presidential vote by ideological views in 1980, when liberal Democrats went 73 percent for Jimmy Carter, 14 percent Reagan and 12 percent for the independent, John Anderson. And they have been even more solidly Democratic in their voting since then, often by margins of better than 15 to 1.

John Kerry, the Democratic nominee in 2004, faced similar flip-flopping charges after famously telling a West Virginia audience that "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." Despite the Bush campaign's emphasis on this waffle and others, liberal Democrats stayed in Kerry's corner.

In an August 2004 Washington Post-ABC News poll, liberal Democrats were twice as likely as voters overall to say Kerry was more apt than Bush to take a position and stick to it. The networks' election day exit poll found just 18 percent of liberal Democrats thought Kerry would "say what he thinks people want to hear," (56 percent of all voters said the same) and 95 percent voted for him.

So far, Obama has corralled about the same proportion of liberal Democrats into his camp as had Kerry at this time in the campaign. In the latest Post-ABC News poll, 86 percent supported Obama, while 85 percent backed Kerry in June of 2004. But that figure lags a bit behind McCain's support from conservative Republicans, 94 percent of whom backed the Arizona senator in the June Post-ABC poll.

Positive impressions of Obama among liberal Democrats have rebounded to 89 percent favorable since a mid-primary dip in April, with strongly favorable views now more prevalent (67 percent) than they were at the outset of voting in January (58 percent).

UPDATE: Reader MLW makes this fair point:

the affect of disappointing your base is not that they vote for the other guy, it is that they stay home. The polls cited cannot measure that."

Polls do offer some clues that accusations of flip-flopping had limited impact on John Kerry in 2004. In an August 2004 Post-ABC poll taken shortly after the Democratic convention, about 14 percent of likely voters were liberal Democrats, about the same as in network exit polls from 2000 (13 percent). That number remained steady throughout September - even though Kerry's favorability among the group dipped to 66 percent from 92 percent in August - and held through tracking polls conducted over the final 31 days of the campaign. Liberal Democrats accounted for 14 percent of all voters according to the 2004 exit poll, suggesting that Kerry's problems overcoming the flip-flopping accusation (and others) did not drive his core supporters away.

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Among Liberal Democrats

General election vote

Obama Favorability

By Jennifer Agiesta  |  07:00 AM ET, 07/10/2008

Categories:  Post Polls

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