Late last week, Gallup released the results of a survey which showed that the percentage of Americans who have liberal views on social issues equaled the percentage of those who identify as socially conservative. Gallup has been conducting surveys on citizens’ ideology since 1999, and this is the first time in 16 surveys that social conservatives do not outnumber social liberals. Typically, the media is eager to report the results of surveys which show reductions in public support for conservative positions. It should come as no surprise, then, that this poll has received coverage from Politico, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post, and a number of other media outlets.
A closer look at the results, however, indicates that there may be less to this poll than meets the eye. Gallup surveys people on their attitudes toward economic and social issues about once a year. Last year, social conservatives outpolled social liberals by a 34-30 margin. This year, it was a 31-31 split. This represents a relatively small change that could have been caused by a slight bias in the sample. One should also remember that Gallup conducted this poll about a week after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges, which has important implications for same-sex marriage. The fact that same-sex marriage was receiving a great deal of positive media coverage likely influenced some people’s responses.
Last year, social conservatives outpolled social liberals by a 34-30 margin. This year, it was a 31-31 split.
Gallup conducted a more interesting poll in May 2013 in which it asked Americans to rate the morality of various social issues. Not surprisingly, it found that on key issues relating to sex and marriage, Americans are becoming more socially liberal. A significantly smaller percentage of Americans are opposed to gay and lesbian relations, divorce, and pre-marital sex than in 2001, for example. Yet news from this poll was not all bad for social conservatives. Opposition to abortion and pornography has held relatively constant, and a smaller percentage of Americans now find physician-assisted suicide morally acceptable.
Clearly social conservatives have lost some ground in the court of public opinion. But the gains that social liberals have made have not been uniform across issues. Indeed, there is a nice body of survey research which shows that the pro-life position has actually made significant gains. To be sure, America’s changing demography — we are becoming wealthier and somewhat less religious — certainly poses some long-term challenges for social conservatives. But the future for social conservatives may not be as bleak as some commentators — and some pollsters — would have you believe.
— Michael J. New is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan–Dearborn and an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington, D.C.