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The conservative shift in public opinion has happened in all 50 states

This is a guest post by Cornell political scientist Peter Enns.


Recently on this blog, Larry Bartels drew attention to an astonishing fact: the public is as conservative as it has been in 50 years. To highlight this point, Professor Bartels presented the public’s policy mood — James Stimson’s measure of public support for government programs—from 1950 to 2012. In a recent article, Julianna Koch and I generated measures of policy mood for each state from the 1950s to 2010 (our measures our here). What we found is that the conservative opinion shift Professor Bartels highlighted repeats itself in every state.

The figure below presents one illustration of this pattern. Here we compare the policy mood in each state in the early 1960s (hollow dots) and in the early 2000s (solid dots). Higher values indicate a more conservative policy mood. In each instance, the solid dot is to the right of the hollow dot, suggesting that the public’s policy mood has moved in a conservative direction in every state. Furthermore, most of these increases are statistically significant.

Surprised by this uniform shift across states, we examined two questions about government that the American National Election Study asked in the early 1960s and 2000s. Because we were dealing with much smaller sample sizes, we analyzed regions instead of states. Again, the data suggest that all regions of the country have shifted in a conservative direction.

The first question, reported in the left panel of the figure below, asked whether the government in Washington should see to it that every person has a job and a good standard of living or whether the government should let each person get ahead on their own. The fact that the solid dots (2002) are to the right of the hollow dots (1964) supports the view that all regions of the country became more conservative. Interestingly, in 1964, the South appears to have been the most supportive of the liberal response (the government should ensure a job and a good standard of living). The second question, reported in the right panel, asked whether or not the government in Washington was getting too powerful. Across all regions, we again see opinion has shifted to the right.

Importantly, the public has not moved in a conservative direction in all issue areas. For example, support for same-sex marriage has been increasing across all states. It is also worth noting that our findings on the 1960s and 2000s hides important shifts in policy mood between these periods, such as increased policy liberalism during the 1980s. However, when it comes to support of government programs, the net conservative shift is clear.  Considering the evidence that inequality is near an all-time high, this may seem like a surprising result. Prominent economic models, for example, expect that as the rich get richer, public support for government policies like spending more on education, infrastructure, and job creation would increase. Instead, across the country, the public’s policy mood has moved in a conservative direction.

What does the public’s conservative shift suggest for future public opinion? That depends a lot on the 2016 election. The public’s policy preferences typically move in the opposite direction of public policy (especially for policies related to government spending). Thus, if a Republican is elected president in 2016 and policy shifts in a conservative direction, we should expect a liberal turn in public opinion.



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Erik Voeten · October 8, 2013

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