The Public Mood Is Very Liberal. But Why?

Every year, James Stimson, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina, updates his public mood index. It’s getting a lot of attention this year because it shows that the public mood is the most liberal it’s been in the entire postwar era:

I’ve added markers to all the midterm election years just before a presidential election where an incumbent was running for reelection. The power of incumbency is strong enough that there’s no clear trend to pick out here, but you can kinda sorta say that Democrats win when the index is above the dashed line and Republicans win when it’s below. But we’re in uncharted territory now. No Republican has ever run for reelection against a public mood this liberal. The two Bushes come the closest, and one lost while the other won (barely).

In other words, this obviously looks promising for a Democratic challenger, but it’s hardly open-and-shut.

That said, I have a couple of questions about this mood index. First, I’m curious about which components of the index are currently trending the most liberal and the most conservative. That data is easily available:

I’m not entirely sure how to interpret all of this. For example, what is a “liberal” mood on the deficit? That it doesn’t matter much? And what’s a “conservative” mood on inflation? That it’s too high? That doesn’t make much sense given the current low inflation rate.

Some of the others are easier to interpret. People are feeling pretty liberal about taxes, which presumably means they’d be OK with raising them, especially on the rich. They’re also feeling pretty liberal about helping schools and ensuring equality of opportunity for all. On the flip side, people are feeling pretty conservative about cutting welfare and cutting the size of government.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. People want to raise taxes on the rich but cut the size of government? They want to ensure equality of opportunity but slash the welfare state? The overall index might be trending historically liberal, but Americans, as usual, are confused and disoriented by the standards of political junkies.

The second question I have is whether this liberal trend is driven by liberals moving to the left or by conservatives (and independents) moving away from the right. Unfortunately, this demographic data isn’t available, which is too bad since it’s an important question. If this mood shift is driven mostly by liberals, it will likely lead to the nomination of a Democrat who is farther to the left than usual and thus farther away from the mainstream (since it hasn’t moved much). If it’s driven by non-liberals, Democrats are likely to nominate an ordinary candidate who will be closer to the mainstream (since it’s moved to the left). The former is obviously good for Donald Trump while the latter is good for liberals. But which is it?

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