Liberal Participation Is Up, But There's Room To Grow

By Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning)

The 2018 election was in many ways a repudiation of Donald Trump and his deeply regressive agenda. Democratic and progressive candidates won races across the country that no one would have expected two years ago. This pattern was true not only in Congress but also in a range of other offices, such as a variety of wins for progressive district attorneys.  But there should have been more wins and the left can do more in 2020, because although those on the left are participating at higher rates, there is still room for them to do more and to bring more volunteers onboard.

For the last decade the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) has asked people about their political activities. Although questions have been added and removed over this time, a few remain consistent across survey years. Each election, the survey has asked respondents if they have donated to a candidate, worked for a candidate, put up a yard sign, or attended a local meeting in the last year. Breaking these responses down by ideology (Very Liberal to Very Conservative) shows relatively good news for those on the left -- liberals have tended to donate and volunteer at much higher rates than conservatives.

The low point for liberal activity compared to conservative activity was in 2010, when the rise of the Tea Party led conservatives to participate at rates higher than liberals across every question except for working for a candidate. In subsequent election cycles, conservative activity followed a general downward trajectory while liberal activity remained relatively constant. Surprisingly, 2018 did not exactly see a spike of activity for liberals, but it did see a less precipitous drop-off than normal for an off-year election. Most importantly for long term organizing, there was actually an increase in liberals saying they’ve attended a local meeting in the last year (although this rate is still significantly lower than it was for conservatives during the height of the Tea Party).


This paints a relatively rosy picture of liberal political activity, which may seem strange given the warning I raised to introduce this blog. However, the problem is that there are simply not as many self-identified liberals as there are conservatives.

Over the last decade there has been a consistent gap between conservatives and liberals. The one big change recently was an increase in Verys. In 2018, there was a spike in those who adopted as Very Liberal or Very Conservative. This spike was associated with a large drop in moderates and regular conservatives. This reflects a potential growing polarization, although it is important to hold off judgement until it becomes clear if this change is persistent.  


Given that there are fewer self-identified liberals, it is important to look at the pool of political activity by ideology. When we focus our attention here, we identify a larger problem for liberal political activity and organizing.  Below, I examine the ideological breakdown of those who participated in these political activities, instead of participation rates by ideology, thereby identifying which ideological groups candidates or other organizations can draw on. What we find is very different from the first graph. In two-thirds of the years and activities, conservatives make up a larger share of the activist the pool than liberals. But the last few years have shown very positive trends for liberals. In fact in 2018, for the first time in the data, liberals made up more of the pool attending meetings than conservatives and a majority of those who worked for a candidate were liberals.


Data for Progress is committed to being honest about the data even when we don’t necessarily like the results. And honestly, right now there are more conservatives than liberals in the United States. This means that liberals and progressives have to work harder and recruit a still-greater share of their co-ideologues to make a bigger impact. Although liberals might participate at higher rates already, they have to do so by even greater margins if they want to account for the same share of activity as conservatives do in this country. And remember, just because this is true now does not mean it has to always be true. Demographics and opinions are changing.

Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning) is an assistant professor of political science at Miami University.

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