Today’s Gallup poll has generated a lot of e-mail today, with conservatives claiming victory in the battle for public opinion.  True, it does show self-described conservatives outstripping moderates and liberals, but in this case the mechanism appears more to be a retreat in the middle:

Thus far in 2009, 40% of Americans interviewed in national Gallup Poll surveys describe their political views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and 21% as liberal. This represents a slight increase for conservatism in the U.S. since 2008, returning it to a level last seen in 2004. The 21% calling themselves liberal is in line with findings throughout this decade, but is up from the 1990s.

These annual figures are based on multiple national Gallup surveys conducted each year, in some cases encompassing more than 40,000 interviews. The 2009 data are based on 10 separate surveys conducted from January through May. Thus, the margins of error around each year’s figures are quite small, and changes of only two percentage points are statistically significant.

To measure political ideology, Gallup asks Americans to say whether their political views are very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal. As has been the case each year since 1992, very few Americans define themselves at the extremes of the political spectrum. Just 9% call themselves “very conservative” and 5% “very liberal.” The vast majority of self-described liberals and conservatives identify with the unmodified form of their chosen label.

The graph at Gallup makes this more clear.  Conservatives peaked in 2003-4, if you can call a net two-point shift in a steady series of polls a “peak”.  Self-identified conservatives have for the past thirteen years remained in a range between 37% and 40%, which is not far outside the margin of error.

The real story is the shift in both liberals and moderates.  Over the last seventeen years, self-described liberals have steadily increased from 17% to 22% of the population, falling back a single point in the latest survey.  Moderates have declined from 43% to 35%, an eight-point drop, the most significant change over time in the poll.  They lost two points in the past year, after an election that supposedly hailed their return to control over the political process.

All three groups are important, and all three are relevant, regardless of the claims of triumphalists on either pole.  Conservativism clearly has not lost any ground, and as the big-spending policies of the Obama administration unfold, one can expect a greater increase in both numbers and passion for conservatives.  Liberals, too, will rally to their first White House in eight years.  As Obama continues to push his hard-Left agenda, expect the moderates to decline even further as American voters choose sides.