Looking at ideology by party over the last thirty years

Members of the news media have been saying in recent years that American politics is becoming more polarized, with Democrats moving further to the left and Republicans further to the right than they have ever been. Our years of experience conducting the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll along with Hart Research can help quantify this relationship a little more.

The charts below show political ideology by party – what percentage of each party and Independents identify as conservative, moderate, or liberal. Each chart starts with the first NBC/WSJ survey in November of 1989 followed by the first month of each new administration for 1993-2009 data. 2010-2018 data is from our merge datasets that include all adult or registered voter surveys conducted that year.

There is a simple and compelling bottom line: Republicans today are tied with 2009 as being the most likely to say they are conservatives, Democrats are at an all-time high in describing themselves as liberals (hitting a majority at 50%), and Independents are at an all-time high describing themselves as moderates.

  • Republicans – In 2018, 69% of Republicans described themselves as conservative, compared to 24% who said they were moderates and 5% who said liberal. Since the inaugural NBC/WSJ poll in 1989, this number is tied for the highest percentage of Republicans since January of 2009, the first month of the Obama presidency. Four years earlier, only 57% of Republicans described themselves as conservative. In the years since January 2009, this number has floated in the mid to upper 60’s.

  • Democrats – In 2018, half of Democrats described themselves as liberal, hitting an all-time high and of 50% for the first time. 12% of Democrats described themselves as conservative, and 36% described themselves as moderate.

  • Independents – In 2018, an all-time high percentage (55%) of Independents described themselves as moderate, compared to 25% conservative and 16% liberal. This percentage has climbed steadily since the George W. Bush years.

    The difference score of Independents describing themselves as conservative minus those who say they are liberal is 9% (25% conservative – 16% liberal), roughly where it was in the 90’s. In the interim, this difference score hit a high point in January 2009, where 35% of Independents described themselves as conservatives vs. 15% who said liberal (a 20-point difference).

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