Photo depicting partisan politics of the Democrats and Republicans in the United States. An elephant and donkey are walking away from each other on an American flag.

Weekend Reads: The Overlap of Ideology, Politics, and Geography

by Kevin Schofield


This weekend’s reads are a trio of reports looking at Americans’ ideological and political affiliations. The first two look at how affiliation has changed over time; the third looks at how affiliation affects where we choose to live.

Gallup recently released two reports from polls looking at how Americans self-identify by political party and by ideology (i.e., conservative, moderate, or liberal), and how that has changed over the past 30 or so years. According to the first report, the percentage of Americans identifying as “conservative” has remained steady in the 36​​–40% range, and at the moment is at 36% — identical to 1992. What has changed, however, is that there are slightly fewer moderates and slightly more liberals. Moderates dropped from 43% in 1992 to 37% last year, and liberals increased from 17% to 25%. This suggests that the country has slowly polarized ideologically; there is less fence-sitting than there used to be.

Graph of percentages depicting Americans' political ideology by year from 1992 to 2021, with a green line representing Conservative, a dark-blue line representing Moderate, and a dotted red line representing Liberal
Graph of percentages depicting Americans’ political ideology by year from 1992 to 2021, with a green line representing Conservative, a dark-blue line representing Moderate, and a dotted red line representing Liberal. Sourced from “U.S. Political Ideology Steady; Conservatives, Moderates Tie,” Gallup.

The report also looks at the ideological splits within each party, and there, we see very interesting trends. The Republican Party has become overwhelmingly conservative, with nearly three-quarters of its members self-identifying as such (up from 58% in 1994). The Democratic Party has also become more liberal, but not nearly to the extreme that the Republicans have: Only 50% of Democrats self-identify as liberal, though that’s doubled since 1994. Among political independents, however, almost nothing has changed: The percentages of conservatives, liberals, and moderates are nearly identical to 1994 levels. To be sure, there were some changes along the way: 10 years ago, independents were more conservative and less moderate, but that has since reverted back.

Graph of percentages depicting Independents' political ideology from 1994 to 2021, with a green line representing Conservative, a dark-blue line representing Moderate, and a dotted red line representing Liberal
Graph of percentages depicting Independents’ political ideology from 1994 to 2021, with a green line representing Conservative, a dark-blue line representing Moderate, and a dotted red line representing Liberal. Sourced from “U.S. Political Ideology Steady; Conservatives, Moderates Tie,” Gallup.

Demographics matter — or, at least, some dimensions. Education matters a lot: The higher level of education you have, the more likely you are to hold liberal views (and vice versa). White skews conservative, while Black and Hispanic skew moderate (there is no racial or ethnic grouping identified by Gallup that heavily skews liberal). Men skew conservative, women moderate. Surprisingly, income level doesn’t matter — the ideological division is nearly identical across all levels.

One last surprise: Despite all the upheaval of the past two years, Americans’ ideological split hasn’t changed much since 2020.

On the other hand, what has changed significantly over the past year — and over the past 30 — is Americans’ political affiliation. According to the second report from Gallup, as of last year, 29% of Americans were Democrats, 27% were Republicans, and 42% were independents. Those are small drops for the two major parties since 1988, when Democrats were 36% and Republicans were 31%, and a large increase for independents (from 33%). Today, while the Democrats and Republicans fill up all the air space, the largest political group by far — and the only major one growing — is independents.

Graph of percentages depicting party identification annual averages from 1988 to 2021, with a dark-blue line representing Democrat, a green line representing Independent, and a dotted red line representing Republican
Graph of percentages depicting party identification annual averages from 1988 to 2021, with a dark-blue line representing Democrat, a green line representing Independent, and a dotted red line representing Republican. Sourced from “U.S. Political Party Preferences Shifted Greatly During 2021,” Gallup.

But Gallup pushed harder, because at the end of the day, those independents nearly always end up choosing between a Republican candidate and a Democratic one on the ballot. And there, it found a dramatic shift just over the course of 2021. Whereas at the beginning of the year 49% of Americans were either Democrats or “Lean Democrat” and 40% were Republican or “Lean Republican,” by the end of 2021, that had swapped. Democrats dropped by two points, “Lean Democrat” dropped by five, Republicans increased by three, and “Lean Republican” increased by four. Some of that is to be expected and fits with past patterns of political shifts when the White House switches hands to the opposite party, but it is nonetheless a dramatic switch.

Graph of percentages depicting U.S. party identification and leaning, 2021 quarterly averages, with a dark-blue line representing Democrat/Lean Democrat and a red line representing Republican/Lean Republican
Graph of percentages depicting U.S. party identification and leaning, 2021 quarterly averages, with a dark-blue line representing Democrat/Lean Democrat and a red line representing Republican/Lean Republican. Sourced from “U.S. Political Party Preferences Shifted Greatly During 2021,” Gallup.

Taken together, these two reports tell us that the loyal bases of both major parties are becoming more extreme ideologically — but both are also shrinking. Independents as a political group are growing, and they can absolutely be swayed. That suggests that politicians in both parties who campaign solely to their base will increasingly struggle.

And that brings us to our third “read” of the week, an essay by Rhodes Cook at the UVA Center for Politics. It follows up on a groundbreaking book by Bill Bishop from 15 years ago called The Big Sort that documented how Americans were increasingly clustering geographically into like-minded communities, moving to where they could find people who shared their religion, lifestyle, and politics.

Cook takes Bishop’s analysis of counties where a presidential candidate won a supermajority of the votes and updates it for the Trump era. In 2020, there were 685 counties in the United States where either Biden or Trump won 80% or more of the votes — 22% of all U.S. counties. That is up slightly from 672 counties four years earlier in 2016, but a huge increase from 165 in 2008 and 274 in 2012. According to Cook, this is a “Trump effect.”

Graph of percentage of counties where a presidential candidate won 80% or more of a two-party vote, with a black line showing an increase from about 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020
Graph of percentage of counties where a presidential candidate won 80% or more of a two-party vote, with a black line showing an increase from about 6% in 2004 to 22% in 2020. Sourced from “The ‘Big Sort’ Continues, with Trump as a Driving Force,” UVA Center for Politics.

But diving deeper into the data shows there’s far more to the story than that. Trump actually won 653 of those “landslide” counties, and Biden won only 32 of them, but Trump’s were almost all white, rural, low-population counties, whereas Biden’s tended to be denser, more diverse, and more urban. In the end, Biden actually had far more votes in his 32 landslide counties than Trump had in his 653. Cook drills down into what this meant for the “battleground” states and finds some interesting stats. Both Arizona and Michigan had no “landslide” counties; Wisconsin had only one. But there were pivotal landslide counties in both Pennsylvania (5) and Georgia (27); and while again Trump won more landslide counties, Biden got more total votes from the few he won — enough to tip the final tally in both states.

Table depicting total two-party votes cast in 80% counties for Trump and Biden
Table depicting total two-party votes cast in 80% counties for Trump and Biden. Sourced from “The ‘Big Sort’ Continues, with Trump as a Driving Force,” UVA Center for Politics.

It should be noted that in 2020, Washington had no “landslide” counties, in either direction — not even deep-blue King County. 

These three reports paint a puzzling picture of America. Our ideology is polarizing, and we’re voting with both our ballots and our feet: Red areas are getting redder, and blue areas are getting bluer. But at the same time, the two major political parties are both increasingly married to their ideological pole — while Americans are increasingly rejecting both of them and declaring their independence.

U.S. Political Ideology Steady; Conservatives, Moderates Tie (Gallup)

U.S. Political Party Preferences Shifted Greatly During 2021 (Gallup)

The “Big Sort” Continues, with Trump as a Driving Force (Rhodes Cook, UVA Center for Politics)


Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and the founder of Seattle City Council Insight, a website providing independent news and analysis of the Seattle City Council and City Hall. He also co-hosts the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast with Brian Callanan, and appears from time to time on Converge Media and KUOW’s Week in Review.

📸 Featured Image by Victor Moussa/Shutterstock.com.

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