Primary Candidates and the Ideology of the Beholder

During much of the 2016 Election cycle, the focus on the ideology of the candidates in both the Republican and Democratic Primaries has been very explicit, perhaps even more so than usual in a country whose politics have historically been mostly non-ideological in their orientation. In the former, Senator Cruz has made it a point of trying to consolidate what he calls the "conservative lane" of the GOP while implicitly disparaging some of his rivals by describing their place in the "establishment lane", or, worse yet, calling them moderates. For the Democrats, ideology has also been an important factor, with long-simmering arguments about the definition of "progressivism" and who is the "true progressive" in the race (progressive being the preferred term to "liberal" given that term's now long history as a pejorative with large portions of the electorate) – to say nothing of the discussion of the meaning of "democratic socialism."

Ideology, however, is a tricky and multi-faceted concept with multiple definitions, a problem made more complicated by the fact that definitions and understandings of ideological labels can also change over time. Most voters aren't really ideological by many of the conventional definitions, but ideology as a label still carries import, even when devoid of complex or even clear meaning. Given this, in the February 2016 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll we wanted to assess whether Texas voters are in fact perceiving the ideological distinctions that many of the candidates are attempting to draw, and where differences in ideological perceptions manifest when they do. To do this, we asked respondents:

On a scale from 1 to 7, where 1 is extremely liberal, 7 is extremely conservative, and 4 is exactly in the middle, where would you place the following candidates? 

This is the same question that we employ later in the survey to allow respondents to identify their own ideological disposition. Again, given that the intended focus of these questions is to learn more about the current primary process, the results presented below are for likely Republican Primary voters and likely Democratic Primary voters, respectively. The "mean ideological placement" is the mean – loosely speaking, the average – of the assessments made by likely voters of the ideology of the candidates on a scale of 1 (most liberal) to 7 (most conservative). Overall, the patterns look much like what we would expect:

Mean Ideological Placement of Republican Candidates
Ted Cruz Donald Trump Marco Rubio
6.23 4.44 4.94
Mean Ideological Placement of Democratic Candidates
Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders
3.23 2.45

Ted Cruz, who led our primary ballot with 37 percent of the vote, is seen as the most conservative candidate of the remaining GOP nominees (remember, 7 is "Extremely conservative"). Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was seen as the next most conservative with a mean ideological placement of 5.56, but he only received 4 percent of the likely Republican primary vote in our polling. Marco Rubio, who was in third with 14 percent of the primary vote, has focused much of his recent campaigning trying to convince Republican voters that he is truly conservative, despite what the Cruz campaign has been saying, is next on the list with a mean ideological placement of 4.94. And the ideological iconoclast (?), Trump, who came in second with 29 percent of the Texas vote, had a mean ideological placement of 4.44. We'll unpack these numbers a little more below, but first, let's dispatch with the far simpler Democratic primary.

On the Democratic side, there is little ambiguity: Democratic Primary voters see Hillary Clinton as less liberal than Bernie Sanders, and this distinction holds across every relevant Democratic sub-group – and Clinton is likely okay with this for two reasons. First, a politician trying to outflank Sanders on who is the more liberal candidate is like a singer trying to out-belt Adele: it won't work for anyone and just ends in embarrassment. Second, in most presidential elections, the candidate who wins the primary has historically made an immediate shift back towards the center of the electorate with the only question really being how at odds they were with a large swath of the general election electorate while trying to appeal to their Primary audience. Clinton, though certain to be viewed as more liberal by voters not designated as likely Democratic Primary voters, is nonetheless probably okay with being seen as a center-left Democrat assuming that she moves on to the general election.

Mean Ideological Placement of Democratic Candidates by Relevant Subgroups
  Hillary Clinton Bernie Sanders
Whites  3.06 2.02
Blacks 3.47 2.89
Hispanics 3.29 2.82
Men 3.19 2.25
Women 3.27 2.62
Liberals 2.83 1.77
    Extremely Liberal 2.89 1.89
    Somewhat Liberal 2.72 1.79
    Lean Liberal 2.95 1.63
18-29 3.46 2.95
30-44 3.45 2.65
45-64 3.17 2.25
65+ 2.91 2.21
Clinton Voters 3.18 2.52
Sanders Voters 3.30 2.32

For Republicans, the ideological perception of the candidates reveal some more interesting nuance, particularly when it comes to Donald Trump, though you're forgiven if you find it difficult to hold "nuance" and "Donald Trump" in mind at the same time. Echoing the critique (to characterize it politely) of the Cruz campaign, Trump was seen as the least conservative of the three leading candidates by every subset of likely Texas GOP Primary voters save one: Trump voters, who see Trump as more conservative than Marco Rubio. Trump continues to be out on his own island of ideology, beckoning voters with his own brand of Republicanism.

Mean Ideological Placement of Republican Candidates Among Relevant Subgroups
  Ted Cruz Donald Trump Marco Rubio
Tea Party Republicans 6.42 4.07 4.67
Non-Tea Party Republicans 6.07 4.52 4.99
Conservatives 6.29 4.43 4.95
    Extremely Conservative 6.45 4.56 4.81
    Somewhat Conservative 6.28 4.39 4.99
    Lean Conservative 6.07 4.27 5.07
Cruz Voters 6.45 3.91 4.84
Trump Voters 5.78 5.18 4.56
Rubio Voters 6.43 4.12 5.71

Given the distinct zone occupied by Trump in the eyes of his supporters, it's interesting to note a clear divergence in perceptions between the two more traditional candidates looking to topple him, particularly the differences in ideological perceptions among conservative voters of different extremities. When it comes to perceptions of Cruz, as a likely Republican Primary voter becomes more conservative, they view him as being more conservative. However, with views of Rubio, it's the opposite: as voters become more conservative, they view the Florida Senator as less conservative. These results help illuminate why Cruz seems to be winning the fights between he and Rubio over the purity of their conservatism (and why there have been so many of those fights). Obviously this needs to be taken with a grain of salt given Cruz's home state status, but it also reflects Cruz's ability to communicate with conservatives in a way that allows him to be a cipher of their own ideology. President Obama was credited with much the same ability, making the liberal element of the electorate feel that he was very liberal, while making those less liberal voters feel that he was more moderate – much to the chagrin of both blocs after the election was won. Cruz no doubt would reject the comparison, even as he seeks the chance to illustrate just how wrong it is.