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December 2, 2008

Schaller: U.S. isn't so conservative

Tom Schaller makes an interesting argument in his column today on The Sun's op-ed page, essentially attempting to debunk the conventional wisdom peddled by Karl Rove et. al. that the U.S. remains a center-right nation, Barack Obama's victory notwithstanding. The chief piece of evidence in the debate is the fact that roughly the same percentages of people identify themselves as liberal, moderate and conservative as they have for years:

The center-right talking point emerged because despite a 9-point net swing in the margin of Mr. Bush's popular-vote victory four years ago and Mr. Obama's four week's ago, the shares of Americans who in 2008 polls identified themselves as "liberal," "moderate" or "conservative" essentially held steady from 2004. Those describing themselves as "liberals" edged up from 21 percent to 22 percent, while self-described "conservatives" slipped from 45 percent to 44 percent, with "moderates" holding steady at 34 percent.

Schaller's contention is that this statistic is basically meaningless, in that "moderate" can mean a lot of things, as can "liberal" and "conservative." When someone says "modrate" they may lean liberal on a host of issues, or they may not.

The whole thing strikes me as a cousin of the argument over whether Maryland is a liberal state. There's no question that it's a solidly Democratic state, but what that means in various individual circumstances can vary tremendously. You've got, for example, Democrats Dutch Ruppersberger and Donna Edwards in the state's Congressional delegation. But would anyone argue that the two are philosophical soulmates? She and her constituents are pretty clearly liberal. He and his would, by most measures, be called conservative. There are plenty of Democratic legislators who are socially liberal and fiscally conservative, and plenty of others (particularly in the Legislative Black Caucus) that are fiscally liberal but pretty socially conservative.

The argument about just how liberal or conservative Maryland's electorate is gets raised all the time by groups like Progressive Maryland and Health Care for All, both of which claim that despite being overwhelmingly Democratic, the state's leaders are less liberal than voters on a whole host of issues. Things like the smoking ban or state funding for stem cell research poll through the roof in Maryland but had tough going in the legislature.

The trick, though, is the same as the liberal-moderate-conservative question in national polls: It all depends on how you frame the issue. Liberal advocacy groups routinely wave around polls showing widespread support for their proposals, even if they would mean higher taxes. But as evidenced by Gov. O'Malley's horrible poll numbers in the wake of last year's special session, voters are a lot less sanguine when tax increases are real and not hypothetical.

So is Maryland a liberal state? It depends on who you ask, and how you ask the question.

Posted by Andy Green at 11:01 AM | | Comments (1)


I'd love to see Maryland poll numbers concerning gun control, gay marriage, handouts to illegal immigrants and other cutting edge issues. I'm betting it wouldn't look so liberal.

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About the bloggers
Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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