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Who are the liberal Democrats and the conservative Republicans?

Daniel Lee and I made these graphs showing the income distribution of voters self-classified by ideology (liberal, moderate, or conservative) and party identification (Democrat, Independent, or Republican). We found some surprising patterns:

(Click on image to see larger version.)

Each line shows the income distribution for the relevant category of respondents, normalized to the income distribution of all voters. Thus, a flat line would represent a group whose income distribution is identical to that of the voters at large. The height of the line represents the size of the group; thus, for example, there were very few liberal Republicans, especially by 2008.

The most striking patterns to me are:

1. The alignment of income with party identification is close to zero among liberals, moderate among moderates, and huge among conservatives. If you’re conservative, then your income predicts your party identification very well.

2. First focus on Democrats. Liberal Democrats are spread among all income groups, but conservative Democrats are concentrated in the lower brackets.

3. Conservative Republicans–the opposite of liberal Democrats, if you will–are twice as concentrated among the rich than among the poor.

Putting factors 2 and 3 together, we find that ideological partisans (liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans) are not opposites in their income distributions. In particular, richer voters are more prevalent in these groups.

Which might be relevant for the debates over health care, taxes, and other political issues that have a redistributive dimension.

P.S. The 2000 and 2004 data are from the National Annenberg Election Survey; 2008 is from the Pew Research pre-election surveys. We show all three years to indicate the persistence of the general pattern. As a way of showing uncertainty and variation, this is much more effective than displaying standard errors, I think.


  1. I can't read the right-hand graphs. They are covered by the menu of comments.


  2. Andrew Gelman says:

    Right-click on View Image.

  3. Right-click? What's that. My Mac mouse has only one button.

  4. Joshua Shen says:

    @Bill, just hit the control key in the same time when you click.

  5. Thanks, Joshua Shen.

    Nonetheless, why can't the graph be shown in full without all this falderol?

    (This is to you, Andrew!)

  6. jonathan says:

    Neat. Thanks.

  7. Dave says:

    I think think this again could have to do with what kind of "conservative" we are talking about. Perhaps low income conservative Democrats are socially conservative, but identify with Democrats because of their support of more social safety nets, and high income conservative Republicans are simply economically conservative.

    This is similar to the point I made here (thanks for the reply to that, by the way). I think once we stop the habit of lumping social and economic viewpoints together, we'll more accurately understand the diverse set of political preferences.

  8. JC says:

    I get no image either. Obviously a Liberal "cover-up" of the Conservative perspective.

  9. I'd be interested in seeing those types of graphs split up by state, or even city as well. I can't imagine California for example follows those same patterns, especially in and around San Francisco.

  10. mike says:

    I've always been confounded by the real meaning of "liberal" and "conservative". The way those words are kicked around in political discussion often seems contrary to any literal interpretation of them.

    But now we have an empirical definition:

    Conservative refers to people who vote their pocketbook.

    Liberal refers to people who vote their conscience.

  11. jonathan says:

    I keep returning to this image because it backs the notion that wealthy conservatives are indeed driving the GOP side of the debate. It's interesting to me because the old GOP image – and I was a GOP voter before the party moved drastically to the right on both social and economic issues – was that Wall Street owned the party. That image has shifted to one of populism but the graphs suggest the old way is more the truth.

  12. Mike, while I appreciate the inference, it should be

    Conservative refers to people who vote their pocketbook.
    Liberal refers to people who do not vote their pocketbook.

    A principal component analysis would be highly interesting. What other components are there?

    Also, it might be beneficial to specify liberal/conservative with respect to social/fiscal issues.

  13. Hank Halle says:

    I find the opposite to be quite true. My conservative friends vote conscience even if it hurts them. My liberal friends vote their pocketbook, even if it hurts the country.

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