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Is the Liberal Tag Stuck on Kerry?

by Lydia Saad, Senior Gallup Poll Editor

"Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because some issues just aren't all that simple."

-- Sen. John Kerry, July 29, 2004

Bill Clinton pioneered the art of "triangulation" as president -- cherry-picking the most popular aspects of Republican and Democratic positions in order to stake out the political middle. Newly crowned as the Democratic nominee for president, Kerry seems to be attempting his own version of this strategy; one might call it "nuancing." In fact, what his opponents criticize as waffling and flip-flopping could bolster the very image that Kerry now seems to be crafting for himself: thoughtful rather than reflexive, high-minded rather than dogmatic, and most of all, moderate rather than liberal.

While President George W. Bush's campaign is trying to tag Kerry with the demonstrably unpopular "liberal" label, Kerry may have less work to do beating it back than one would imagine. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll taken just prior to the Democratic national convention, 46% of Americans consider Kerry's political views "liberal," 32% describe them as "moderate" and 16% as "conservative." While certainly weighted more to the left than the right of the political spectrum, his image is far from simply "a Massachusetts liberal."

Also, current perceptions of Kerry's political views are nearly identical to how the public reviewed Clinton's ideology in March 1996.

That's not bad for Kerry given that he has a lifetime liberal voting rating of 92 from Americans for Democratic Action, a leading liberal lobby organization. And, with a liberal voting score of 97 for 2003, he ranked as the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate for that year, according to the National Journal. By contrast, Clinton continually fashioned himself as a "new Democrat," straight out of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. 

If anyone is seen as an ideologue in this campaign it is Bush. While less than half of Americans (46%) consider Kerry a liberal, two-thirds (67%) call Bush a conservative. Bush is more likely to be seen as more conservative than the last Republican to run for the Oval Office, former Sen. Bob Dole. In 1996, only 55% of the public described Dole as a conservative.

Of course, given that Dole lost the '96 election to Clinton, this contrast with Dole is not necessarily a negative factor for Bush. One might argue that Dole's lack of conservative fire may have been underwhelming to voters. On the other hand, Bush's pervasive reputation as a conservative could make it harder for him to reach beyond his base.

Republicans Buy the Liberal Charge

For now, it appears that the Bush campaign has had much more success convincing Republicans than political independents (that is, potential "swing voters") that Kerry is a liberal. While a plurality of Democrats say Kerry is moderate (42%), independents are about evenly divided between calling him moderate and liberal (34% and 28%), and Republicans overwhelmingly say he's liberal (66%). 

By contrast, between 60% and 77% of all three partisan groups agree that Bush is conservative.

Ideological Symmetry With the Public

Another key to interpreting the candidates' ideology ratings is to see how they compare with Americans' own political views.

Gallup's ideology question requires respondents to rate themselves and the candidates on a 5-point scale, as either very conservative, conservative, moderate, liberal, or very liberal. Overall, Americans are fairly well dispersed across this spectrum (although more likely to be conservative than liberal), while they perceive Bush and Kerry more as ideologues.

Comparative scores are calculated according to how far to the left or right of themselves that respondents place each candidate. The results suggest that Bush and Kerry are on nearly equal footing when it comes to ideological symmetry with the public. About a quarter of Americans perceive Bush and Kerry as either a lot more conservative or a lot more liberal than themselves. Another 20% or so consider each just somewhat more conservative or liberal, respectively. This leaves less than a third of Americans describing either candidate in the same ideological terms as themselves.

Kerry and Bush are also about evenly matched among independents on this measure. About a quarter of independents believe their own political views are aligned with each candidate's ideology. Independents are only slightly more likely to see Bush as more conservative than themselves than to see Kerry as more liberal (49% vs. 37%).

Once again, the outlier in perceptions is the large percentage of Republicans considering Kerry more liberal than themselves. There is a 50-point gap between Republicans and Democrats in the percentage seeing Kerry as more liberal than themselves: This figure is 73% among Republicans vs. only 23% among Democrats. By contrast, there is only a 25-point partisan gap in the perception that Bush is more conservative than themselves: 57% among Democrats vs. 32% among Republicans.

Bottom Line

If the Bush campaign is going to succeed in effectively curtailing support for Kerry with the liberal charge, it will have to do more than convince Republicans of its validity. Until now, independents have mostly rejected the liberal description of Kerry, and the task of changing that may have become even harder since Kerry reintroduced himself at the convention as a pragmatist, not an ideologue.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,005 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted July 19-21, 2004. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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