Clinging to Sticky Identities on the Hill

By Nathaniel Nakon

Following the recent shock that was the 2016 Presidential Election, numerous think pieces have attributed the surprise of Donald Trump’s victory to be a product of the liberal bubble that college educated individuals tend to live in.  Most college students spend eight months out of the year in a community largely filled with liberal identities that very much resemble their own.  On a campus such as Denison’s, claiming to be a liberal can very much become the “socially acceptable” option. Is a liberal identity over-reported on campus?

In order to see if this is happening at Denison, I utilized data collected in a campus wide survey conducted in early November of 2016, in the days leading up to the election. We asked individuals to take a position on a battery of social and economic issues, ranging from abortion to welfare benefits.(see note 1)  The responses to these questions, as well as how Denison compares to the rest of the United States as a whole, can be seen in Figure 1 below.(see note 2) As you can see, Denison students sided with the liberal position about 74% of the time, while the general public did so only about 45% of the time.  Although Denison students somewhat resembled the general public on issues such as the legalization of marijuana, there were vast differences in other social issues such as the death penalty, welfare, and affirmative action, once again enforcing the perception of the liberal bubble.

 Figure 1: Issue stances of Denison Students vs. The General Public


But do an individual’s stances on these issues line up with their self-proclaimed ideology? In order to accomplish this goal, I used the seven criteria shown in Figure 1 to create a seven-point ideological scale measuring the number of liberal opinions one holds.  I then found the predicted value for the liberal positions scale based on one’s self-proclaimed ideology.  In layman’s terms, I found the predicted the ideological identity people hold given the political positions they take. The predicted results can be seen in Figure 2 below.

 Figure 2 – Ideological Identity Loosely Conforms to Political Position Taking


The most liberal Denison students have views that most closely align with their self-proclaimed ideology.  In fact, individuals who claim to be the most conservative are most likely to hold positions opposite their ideology, with just over 15% of self identified conservatives actually holding more liberal positions than conservative ones (see the upper left corner of the plot).  I wanted to dive a little deeper and see which liberal stances conservatives were particularly more agreeable with.  Over half of all conservatives on campus sided with the liberal opinion on the issues of marijuana legalization and abortion rights, while they were most opposed to Obamacare and welfare.

These findings beg the question as to the motivations behind claiming a strong conservative identity when one’s positions do not actually match this proclamation.  Another possible explanation lies in the liberal bubble itself. Perhaps many individuals come into Denison identifying with a certain ideology and then become open to more liberal views on particular issues. Although I have previously found this assertion wanting using ideological identities (which don’t change across class years), there is some evidence that issue positions grow more liberal – seniors average one more liberal position than first year students. Therefore, this investigation suggests that the liberal bubble does not promote over-reporting of liberalism, but instead that political identities prove to be sticky.

When not writing for One Twenty Seven, Nathaniel Nakon can be found in the Knapp lab, attempting to break the world with numbers and keystrokes.


1. The full text of the questions posed to individuals are as follows:  Abortion “What is your stance on abortion?”  Death Penalty “Do you support the death penalty” Minimum Wage “Should the government raise the federal minimum wage?”  Welfare “Should there be fewer or more restrictions on current welfare benefits?”  Obamacare “Do you support the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)?”  Weed “Do you support the legalization of marijuana?”  Affirmative Action “Do you support affirmative action programs?”

2. The direct wording of the questions used, as well as the data on the public for the proportion siding with the liberal opinion were taken directly from

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