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Oregon: Swing State or latte-drinking, Prius-driving lesbian commune?

Democrats like to pretend that Oregon, like Wisconsin, isn’t really a swing state because they’ve usually managed to win it in the end. But a swing state it is — Al Gore won there by less than 7,000 votes, and John Kerry improved on those numbers, but not by much. And yet Oregon also has a reputation for being extremely progressive: people think of its assisted suicide law or its decriminalization of marijuana, or the bohemian atmosphere of Portland, and naturally enough come to that conclusion. How to reconcile these two things?

There are two ways to be a swing state. One is to have a lot of moderates. That doesn’t really describe Oregon; a moderate state like Ohio would never pass an assisted suicide law. The other way is to have both a lot of conservatives and a lot of liberals, who happen to roughly balance one another out. Oregon is one such state.

Exit polls from 2004 contain a basic question about the ideology (conservative/liberal/moderate) of each voter. We can apply a Likert scale to these responses, assigning 10 points to every liberal, 5 to every moderate, and 0 to every conservative. We will call this result a Liberalness Score. The average voter in Oregon has a Liberalness Score of 4.65, which ties it with Minnesota as the 13th most liberal state in the country. (Massachusetts is the most liberal state at 5.65, and Utah the most conservative at 3.30. Note that only a handful of states have a rating above 5 — that is, have more self-identified liberals than conservatives.)

But here’s where it gets interesting. The average Kerry voter nationwide had a Liberalness Score of 6.20 — just slightly left of center. However, in Oregon, the average Kerry voter was a 7.17. This, as it happens, is the highest score in the country; the Kerry voters in Oregon were more liberal than the ones in Vermont (7.11) or even the District of Columbia (6.97).

Meanwhile, the average Bush voter nationwide had a Liberalness Score of 2.58 — pretty darn conservative. But in Oregon, the average Bush voter was a 2.01 — very conservative. And guess what? That is the lowest Liberalness Score for Bush voters anywhere in the country. The Bush voters in Oregon were as conservative as the ones in Tennessee (2.02) or Utah (2.15).

So the liberals in Oregon are as liberal as any in the country, whereas the conservatives are as conservative as any in the country. This is how you wind up with the weird political soup wherein Oregon has decriminalized marijuana but has also passed a gay marriage ban, or how it allows assisted suicide but also has one of the nation’s lowest effective tax rates.

A graph of the Liberalness Scores of Bush and Kerry voters in each state is below.

As you can see, there’s really not all that much relationship between the Liberalness Scores of Bush voters and Kerry voters in a given state. But there are three basic regional clusters:

1. In the South, where Republicans are very conservative and Democrats are moderate;
2. In New England, where Republicans are moderate and Democrats are liberal;
3. Finally, some western states like Oregon, Washington and Colorado, where the Democrats are liberal but the Republicans are still quite conservative.

There aren’t really any states where both Democrats and Republicans are moderate, although Rhode Island almost meets that description. Part of the reason is that the moderate wing of the Republican party is on life support everywhere outside of New England, and even that suffered a big symbolic blow when Linc Chafee was voted out of office in 2006.

But getting back to Oregon, this is a relevant factor in light of the state’s closed primary, because the Democratic electorate in Oregon is in fact quite liberal, even though the state as a whole is not. The Democrats in Oregon aren’t especially wealthy and they aren’t especially well-educated — but they are pretty darn liberal.

We’ve gotten so used to talking about demography in the primaries that we’ve forgotten about plain old ideology — partly because, until fairly recently, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama were in any particular hurry to run to the political center. But with Clinton having increasingly run to Barack Obama’s right, we will have an interesting experiment on our hands in Oregon. More on this when we do our Oregon delegate preview tomorrow or Monday.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.