Interestingly, Gallup didn’t lead with the finding on social conservatism from its latest survey, but that may be because the bounce upward followed two straight declines in the same series. The focus on economic conservatism is a little more dramatic, if consistent:
Americans are more than twice as likely to identify themselves as conservative rather than liberal on economic issues, 46% to 20%. The gap is narrower on social issues, but conservatives still outnumber liberals, 38% to 28%. …
In the same poll, on Gallup’s standard measure of ideology — not asked in reference to any set of issues — 41% identified themselves as conservatives, 33% as moderates, and 23% as liberals. Those figures are similar to what Gallup typically finds when it asks people to identify their ideology.
Thus, compared with the standard measure of ideology, slightly more Americans say they are economically conservative and slightly fewer say they are socially conservative. Also, significantly more Americans say they are socially liberal than identify their basic ideology as liberal.
Why might that be? Perhaps because to be seen as socially liberal is more “cool.” It may also provide a bit of social cover for economic conservatism; I’ve heard people say, “Yes, I’m a fiscal conservative, but I’m socially liberal” on a number of occasions. However, the actual breakout shows that people don’t actually think of themselves in that way. Of the 46% who claim to be economic conservatives, only 3% also claim in this study to be social liberals, with 11% identifying as social moderates.
This is the same survey, however, that found a majority of respondents identifying as “pro-life,” with pro-choice identification dropping to 41%, a new low. That indicates that either more social moderates are crossing over to pro-life, or social moderates might be disappearing. This graph from the survey suggests it might be more of the latter:
It’s interesting to note that while social conservatism peaked and slid, social liberalism dipped and rose, with moderates benefiting briefly. This looks more like a slight trend toward polarization, and moderates may end up at the bottom of the split in subsequent polls. That’s also the trend with economics, but the difference between moderates and liberals is still large enough that there is little danger of economic liberals overtaking the moderates, while economic conservatives remain near the majority.
What does that mean for the 2012 election? The model suggests that Barack Obama and Democrats will have a tough time, although not as tough as in 2010, given that the election will almost entirely hinge on economic policies. The split for C/M/L on economics in 2008 was 40/38/19, and Obama at that time got a lot of support from moderates who thought he was one of them. In 2010, it was 51/33/15, which drove the midterm victories for the GOP. Now we’re back at 46/32/20, still a much more significant gap than in 2010, plus Obama will have a tough time selling himself as a moderate. To the extent that social issues come into play at all, the chart above doesn’t suggest that it will be very helpful to Obama — except perhaps as a distraction from economics.