Ranking states by the liberalism/conservatism of their voters

Here’s a graph of the 50 states (actually, I think Alaska and Hawaii are missing), showing the average economic and social ideology of adults within each state. Each of these is scaled so that negative numbers are liberal and positive are conservative; thus, people in Massachusetts are the most liberal on economic issues and people in Idaho are the most conservative:


West Virginians are on the liberal side economically but are extremely socially conservative, whereas Vermont is about the same as West Virginian on the economic dimension but is the most socially liberal of all the states. Coloradans are economically conservative (on average) but socially moderate (or, perhaps, socially divided; these are averages only).

How do these rankings fit with our usual rankings of states? Here’s a plot showing average economic and social ideology for each state, plotted vs. George W. Bush’s vote share in 2000:


Democrats and Republicans separately

The next step is to break these voters down into Democrats and Republicans (based on self-reported party identification and following the usual practice among political scientists of throwing the “leaners” into the regular party categories). In the graph below, each state is shown twice: the avg social and economic ideologies of Democrats in the state are shown in blue, the avgs for Republicans in red.


We made these graphs during the primary election season, and one thing we noticed was that South Carolina (“SC”) is in the middle of the pack among Democrats and among Republicans, but it’s one of the most conservative states overall. My take on this: South Carolina is a strongly Republican state, and the moderates in South Carolina are likely to identify as Republican. This pulls the Republican average to the left (as they includes the moderates) and also pulls the Democratic average to the left (as they are not including so many moderates).

But the big thing we see from the graph immediately above is that Democrats are much more liberal than Republicans on the economic dimension: Democrats in the most conservative states are still much more liberal than Republicans in even the most liberal states. On social issues there is more overlap (although in any given state, the average Republican is more conservative than the average Democrat).

Details on data

David Park and I made these graphs from the Annenberg pre-election survey from 2000 (with its huge sample size), creating indexes based on issue opinions, giving each respondent an economic and social ideology score. We scaled these so that each had a national average of 0 and standard deviation of 0.5. (We used these scales in our Red State, Blue State book, but these particular graphs never made it into the book.)


Yes, I know the graphs could be better. We made them a few months ago and haven’t organized them into any final form.

P.P.S. More info here.

21 thoughts on “Ranking states by the liberalism/conservatism of their voters

  1. I'd like to see some representation of the mean for all of these graphs. Just a simple line across the graphic would be interesting to me.

    Seeing the NE plot so far to the right on economics issues and maybe not so much to the top on social issues is enlightening, considering where I live.

    I also find it interesting that Nebraska Democrats aren't especially liberal on social issues. But maybe more liberal on economics.

    The choices of scales seem odd to me.

    All in all, very interesting, though.

  2. It would be nice to see that last graph (the Dems and Reps for each state) broken into four scatter-plots: Dem Econ by Rep Econ, Dem Soc by Rep Econ, Dem Econ by Rep Soc, and Dem Soc by Rep Soc. But, all in all, this is very interesting.

  3. "one thing we noticed was that South Carolina ("SC") is in the middle of the pack among Democrats and among Republicans, but it's one of the most conservative states overall."

    Ooh, Simpson's Paradox?

  4. Very interesting. I checked MN, my home state, and found that we our Republicans are economically among the most conservative, and our Democrats among the most liberal, adding up to: MODERATION!!

    In the top graph MN is as close to VA as it is to any state except WN, IL, and CA, but VA is hard Republican whereas the other three are hard Democratic. Local culture means something.

    It seems that social liberalism / conservativism trumps economic liberalism / conservativism. Socially-moderate / economically conservative states can vote Democratic (notably Iowa, Wisconsin, and MN: Iowa is economically the fourth most conservative state), whereas economically moderate / socially conservative states are mostly Republican.

  5. When I look at a graph like this I see a point estimate. But I don't see any representation of standard error from the measurement. For SC is in the middle of the pack but if we resample and its on the edge whats that worth? It is difficult to just look at a graph and start reasoning when there isn't a comment of how sure you are of the location. You comment about how they were rescaled which covers the spread of the actual dots, but it doesn't say how much variability there is expected in the dot location if the sampling was repeated.

    If it is "we are 95% confident the size of the letters or smaller cover the actual…" then nod.

  6. Hi Andrew….
    If you want to get this mentioned on one of the biggest blogs, let me know…. I think I'd need to get some more details on how you did them, and stuff, but then could write it up for dailyKos (crediting you and mentioning your book, of course)

  7. The lower right quadrant (socially liberal, economically conservative) is the area claimed by libertarians. Yet this is the most barren portion of the chart. Is this an artifact of the way the data were put together, or are there really no states that could be considered libertarian?

  8. I'm curious what to know more about the opinion questions that generated these data, and how they were mapped to "conservative" and "liberal". I suspect there's considerably deeper texture in the analysis yet to be revealed. Of course, I'm one of those notoriously unpopular libertarian types (small "l"), so I might be a bit biased.

    As a person with a presumably rare set of opinions, it's easy to imagine various likely sets of questions that could place me, well, essentially anywhere on the 2-dimensional map, but with most opinion surveys I've seen, I'd get placed not all that far from, roughly speaking, one of the "modes". In other words, I tend to think of my opinions in terms of a dimension that is more or less orthogonal to the usual conservative/liberal continuum, even when controlling for social vs. economic issues. And if that happens among very many responders, then the picture is more complex.

    To put it more succinctly, do answers to the survey questions have predictive power with respect to other opinions the responders might have?

  9. Any ideas for making the D/R graph more readable? eg, to make it easier to single out SC as interesting from the graph than from a table of numbers?

    You might draw lines between the two points for each state. Since they're all close to parallel, this would probably make things worse. But you could use different axes for D & R, so that they're centered on the same place, and then draw the lines. Would that work? Also, singling out SC requires not just the data in the graph, but the third point of where the total population lands.

  10. I redesigned the original graph a bit by adding lines to divide it into four quadrants and beefing up the labeling. See this post for my redesign. It also would be fun to map/color-code the data (ie, on a US map). Would be great if Andrew would post the original data so others could try different mapping/graphing techniques.

  11. These are all based on some kind of mean, right? It would be very interesting to see the distributions within each state.

  12. Libertarian views aren't unpopular, they're relatively unknown by the voting population. Students are taught that a political spectrum is represented by a simple line graph which does no justice to the actuality of politics. There are two views that are consistently presented to the public to choose from, and then we wonder why people don't realize there's a third and fourth.

  13. It would be interesting to see a "polarization" graph, something like each state plotted with x = (Rep_econ – Dem_econ), y = (Rep_social – Dem_social)

  14. At 538 there is a discussion going concerning the impact on economics of the constellations of policy choices. Could you plot the econ ratings against the per capita income for each state? And as an index of the impact of the the social policy choices plot them against some objective indicator such as the divorce rate?

  15. GA, ID and several other states are on the far right side of the first graph. The column width of this blog is truncating the image. Right click on the graph image and select "view image" and you will see the whole graph.

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