A Surprising Fact…As we were going back to the National Election Studies data to clarify the “mystery graph,” we came across a simple table that cannot help but surprise those who have watched American politics shift steadily to the hard right.

The table on the National Election studies website (reprinted below) tracks the “liberal-conservative index” (NES variable VCF0801), which is simply a composite value that places the thermometer feeling of voters toward liberals and conservatives on a single 0-97 scale, with 0 being most favorable toward liberals, 50 being neutral/moderate, and 97 being most favorable toward conservatives (why 97? — you’ll have to ask an NES expert). So higher scores mean voters are more favorable toward conservatives. Here are the annual averages for the last forty or so years:

Index 1964-2002

64 66 68 70 72 74 76 78 80 82 84 86 88 90 92 94 96 98 00 02 Year
51 52 52 54 53 52 52 ** 54 52 51 51 54 51 51 54 53 51 51 52 Index

A pretty underwhelming stampede to the right among voters, one must say.

In the mystery graph, however, we show that activists on the right are running away from independent voters (on this measure) faster than Democratic activists are. Some of you were concerned that our use of a trendline might obscure the true relationship, so we have reprinted below a very nice figure from a paper by Morris Fiorina, “Whatever Happened to the Median Voter?” Fiorina just graphs the positions of voters and activists; he doesn’t, as we did, show how far activists on each side of the partisan aisle are from independent voters. And his analysis ends in 1996. But the table makes clear that (even up to 1996) while both Republican and Democratic activists have polarized, Republicans are moving farther from the center.