Newsweek asserted as fact that America "remains right of center," but a former Wash. Times editor disagrees


Newsweek's Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe repeated the assertion previously made by Newsweek colleague Jon Meacham that the country "remains right of center." Thomas and Wolffe cited as evidence exit polling that showed more respondents identifying themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal." But political scientists dispute the reliability of voters' identification with political ideologies, and the former editor of The Washington Times' editorial page asserted "the only problem" with conservatives claiming America is a "center-right" country is that "[i]t isn't true. Or at least, not anymore."

In a November 15 article, Newsweek's Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe repeated as fact an assertion previously made by their Newsweek colleague Jon Meacham that notwithstanding sweeping Democratic victories in the 2006 and 2008 elections, the country "remains right of center." Like several media conservatives, Thomas and Wolffe cited as evidence exit polling that showed more respondents identifying themselves as "conservative" than as "liberal." However, as Media Matters for America has documented, political scientists dispute the reliability of voters' identification with political ideologies, and Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling group, recently released a poll that showed strong support for the progressive positions that President-elect Barack Obama advocated, including the repeal of tax cuts for the wealthy and near-universal health-care coverage. Indeed, Tod Lindberg, the former editor of The Washington Times' editorial page, asserted that "the only problem" with conservatives claiming America is a "center-right" country is that "[i]t isn't true. Or at least, not anymore."

In Newsweek, Thomas and Wolffe wrote:

If there was any one message that defined the Obama campaign from the beginning, it was his promise to rise above the petty politics of division and unite the country. But now comes reality. The newly elected Congress will be left of center, particularly the old liberal bulls that chair committees and form much of the leadership of the House and Senate. The country, on the other hand, remains right of center (exit polls on Election Day show that 22 percent of voters identify themselves as liberal, 33 percent as conservative and 46 percent as moderate). Especially in the Senate, where the Democrats will be perhaps two or three votes shy of the 60 needed to break a filibuster and pass a bill, compromise and coalition-building will be the order of the day. If Obama is to accomplish much of anything, he is going to need all the leadership skills of a Lincoln.

However, as Media Matters noted, in the 2005 edition of American Public Opinion*, Robert S. Erikson and Kent L. Tedin, political science professors at Columbia University and the University of Houston, respectively, questioned the reliability of poll questions that ask voters to self-identify with a political ideology. Erikson and Tedin argued that "the most politically sophisticated segment of the public" can more accurately identify as conservative or liberal based on traditional ideologies. They continued: "But when less sophisticated people respond to the ideological identification question with a response of liberal, moderate, or conservative, we can be less sure of what the response means. At worst, the response represents some idiosyncratic meaning known only to the respondent, or perhaps a doorstop opinion made up on the spot. ... One test is whether the individual can both identify the Republican as the more conservative party and offer a plausible definition of the term conservative. Roughly half the public passes this test of understanding of ideological labels."

In a November 16 Washington Post op-ed, former Washington Times editorial page editor Tod Lindberg also rebutted the claim that self-identification polling proves that the U.S. is a center-right nation, writing that the 2008 election results are "just the latest sign that the country's political center of gravity is shifting from center-right to center-left." Of self-identification exit polls, Lindberg wrote:

True, the percentage of voters describing themselves as "liberal" and "conservative" has held relatively constant over many election cycles, with self-described liberals checking in at 22 percent this time around (up one percentage point over 2004) and self-described conservatives at 34 percent (unchanged from 2004). The numbers may not have changed, but the views behind those labels certainly have. Nowadays, it's a fair bet that most of those calling themselves "liberal" support gay marriage. In 1980, those same liberals were, no doubt, cutting-edge supporters of gay rights, but the notion of same-sex marriage would have occurred only to the most avant-garde. In 1980, having a teenage daughter who was pregnant out of wedlock would have ruled you out for the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket. This year, it turned out to be a humanizing addition to the conservative vice presidential nominee's résumé.

Lindberg was identified by the Post as "a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution and the editor of Policy Review. He was an informal foreign policy adviser to the McCain campaign."

Additionally, in a November 10 column published on the conservative website American Thinker, frequent contributor and attorney Steven M. Warshawsky criticized the use of self-identification polling by Fox News contributor Karl Rove and Democratic strategist Doug Schoen:

One problem with the analysis offered by Rove and Schoen is that it assumes that voters who identify themselves as "liberal" or "moderate" or "conservative" interpret those labels the same way that Rove and Schoen do. And Rove and Schoen obviously believe that the "moderate" label implies that a person is right-leaning instead of left-leaning. But is this correct? Again, I'm skeptical. Until someone explains why supposedly right-leaning voters flocked to Barack Obama, it seems to me that the notion that such voters are "conservative" should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

On the question of whether the U.S. is a "center-right" country, Warshawsky wrote:

We won't have a good handle on where the country stands ideologically until we see what actually happens over the next two years. Will the American people decide to impose higher taxes on the "rich" to pay for the smorgasbord of social and economic benefits that Obama and the Democrats are promising? If so, we are center-left. Will there be a 1994-style revolt against an overreaching liberal administration? If so, we are center-right. It is too early to say.

* Erikson, Robert S., and Kent L. Tedin. American Public Opinion. 7th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

Propaganda/Noise Machine, Polling, 2008 Elections
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