I want to elaborate a bit on my post on ideology from last week. Jim Stimson (UNC), one of the best public opinion scholars out there, is studying this question of how Americans often mislabel their own ideology.
One of Stimson's major contributions to the public opinion field has been the development of his "mood" index. Essentially, Stimson's measure of mood uses survery data that asks citizens their positions on a range of issues. Stimson combines these responses and creates a measure of the percentage of Americans who want policy to move in a more liberal direction. In a recent presentation, Stimson demonstrated how the American electorate appears to be far more liberal according to his "mood" index than they are when they are asked to describe their own ideology. The image below, taken from the presentation, demonstrates how these two measures track over the past half century.
There are two notable patterns in this figure. First, note the large gap between the percentage of citizens who consider themselves liberal (blue line) and the percentage who answer a variety of policy questions in a liberal way (red line). This gap persists throughout the period examined.
A second point is that while there was always a gap between these two measures, they generally moved in the same direction during this period. During the 1970s, both measures declined; during the 1980s, both measures were on the rise. However, this pattern has reversed a bit since the mid-1990s. Note that while "mood" is moving in a substantially more liberal direction in recent years, the percentage of Americans who call themselves liberal is continuing to decline (though at a modest rate).
The fact that the two measures do not appear to even move in the same direction in recent years really illustrates the disconnect between how citizens identify their own ideology when asked whether they are liberal, moderate or conservative and the way they actually behave when asked about specific policy issues. How pollsters and political scientists deal with this problem is another question.