What are the major public opinion coalitions among Kentuckians? Is it as simple as blue voters vs. red voters, Democrats vs. Republicans? Or is there more nuance among Kentuckians when it comes to their political policy views?
The 2019-2020 Nationscape Survey fielded nationally-representative surveys on a weekly basis throughout the 2020 presidential election cycle, resulting in over 315,000 completed surveys. Over 6,000 of these respondents were Kentuckians. This is one of the largest surveys of American public opinion ever fielded and allows for an unprecedented level of in-depth analysis of American political attitudes and behavior, with a margin of error for the Kentucky sample of approximately ±1.3%.
I analyzed this survey to identify different “clusters” of policy opinion coalitions among Kentuckians. This analysis is based on Pew Research Center’s “Political Typology” research that identified a variety of consistent groups into which Americans tend to fall in terms of their political opinions. Pew’s Political Typology identified, for instance, differences between “core conservatives” who hold consistently conservative views across a range of different political and social topics and “market skeptic Republicans” who are socially conservative but are generally in favor of stricter regulations on financial institutions and economic transactions. (In all, Pew identified eight different political groups in their analysis of American public opinion.) To analyze whether there are any similar dominant public opinion groupings in Kentucky specifically, I used the same statistical approach employed by Pew and identified three key public opinion groups.[FN1]
The three groups, their political views, and their demographic characteristics are shown in the tables below:
About one-third of Kentuckians
|SOLID LIBERALS |
About one-in-five Kentuckians
|PRAGMATIC MODERATES |
About half of all Kentuckians
|Four-in-five identify as Republicans and over 90% voted for Trump|
Tend to be older, economically affluent, white, Evangelical, and straight
Consistently conservative policy views
Over half regularly watch Fox News
Half are gun owners
|Two-thirds identify as Democrats|
Strongly opposed to Trump
Tend to be younger women, economically affluent, racially/ethnically/sexually diverse, and less religious
Consistently liberal policy views, especially on issues of race, sexuality, and culture
|Tend to split between Democrats and Republicans|
Liberal economic and environmental policy views but conservative social policy views
Tend to be women, more racially/ethnically diverse, moderately religious, and straight
Most are lower class or middle class
Political attitudes and behavior among Kentucky public opinion groups
|Core Conservatives 37% of Kentuckians||Solid Liberals 20% of Kentuckians||Pragmatic Moderates 46% of Kentuckians|
|Things in U.S. are generally headed in the right direction||55.6||13.9||28.7|
|Things in U.S. are off on the wrong track||38.2||73.1||58.8|
|Viewed MSNBC in past week||14.8||34.7||31.1|
|Viewed FOX in past week||51.9||28.2||37.5|
|Somewhat/strong Trump approval rating||79.7||20.4||43.7|
|Voted for Trump in 2016||86.9||15.6||47.5|
|Support Trump’s Jan 2020 impeachment||5.5||56.8||40|
|Plan to vote Trump in 2020 election against Joe Biden||78.3||18.9||40.2|
|Agree that Blacks should work way up without special favors||69.7||28.8||54.4|
|Disagree that slavery and discrimination make it difficult for Blacks to leave lower class||58.9||17.4||36.7|
|Agree that there is a lot/great deal of anti-Black discrimination in U.S. society||23||73.7||51.3|
|Someone in household owns a gun||48.7||24.4||29.4|
|Ban assault rifles||23.8||59.6||53.8|
|Build a wall on southern U.S. border||68.3||10.5||37.8|
|Cap carbon emissions||23.1||75.2||63.0|
|Raise taxes on families making more than $250K/year||28.9||53.3||56.5|
|Allow abortion only in special circumstances||26.3||70.5||46.6|
|Medicare for All||16.5||61.9||71.2|
|Raise minimum wage to $15/hour||26.2||77.3||79.6|
|Ban travel from Muslim countries||36.8||8.0||24.2|
|Allow transgender in military||30.6||79.9||59.8|
Demographic characteristics of Kentucky public opinion groups
|Demographic % of all Kentuckians||Core Conservatives 37% of Kentuckians||Solid Liberals 20% of Kentuckians||Pragmatic Moderates 46% of Kentuckians|
|Less than high school||14.2||12.1||13||14.8|
|High school degree||26.3||24.9||18||29.6|
|Lower class (less than $50K/year)||43.6||31.8||39.7||51.7|
|Middle class ($50K-$125K/year)||38.8||46.5||43.2||30.9|
|Upper class (more than $125K/year)||17.7||21.7||17.1||16.4|
|“Nothing in particular”||16.2||13.7||19.9||16.6|
|Congressional District 1 (western KY)||16.9||18.3||13||16.8|
|Congressional District 2 (central-west KY)||17.8||18.3||14.4||18.9|
|Congressional District 3 (Louisville)||14.5||8.7||17.7||18.2|
|Congressional District 4 (northern KY)||18.5||19.9||22.9||15|
|Congressional District 5 (eastern KY)||17.5||18.8||12.9||19.3|
|Congressional District 6 (Lexington/Frankfort)||14.8||16||19.1||11.9|
GROUP 1: CORE CONSERVATIVES
The first group can be characterized, following Pew’s labels, as “Core Conservatives” and are strongly supportive of President Donald Trump (recall that this survey was conducting during 2019-2020 during the Trump Administration). These make up a solid third (34%) of all Kentuckians. Politically, 78% identify as Republicans compared to only 14% who identify as Democrats and only 9% who identify as Independents. Most identify as ideologically conservative while a quarter identify as moderate. Nine in ten voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election and nearly four years later, four in five approved of his performance in office and planned to vote for him again in the 2020 election, while only 6% thought he should be impeached over his overtures toward Ukraine to get involved in the 2020 election. Over half say they watch Fox News on a regular basis to get their news. Two thirds (68%) support Trump’s border wall and half (49%) support Trump’s travel ban on those from majority-Muslim countries. They strongly oppose most liberal priorities, with only 23% supporting a carbon cap, 24% supporting an assault rifle ban, 26% supporting conditional abortion rights, 21% supporting Medicare for All, and 26% supporting raising the minimum wage to $15/hour. They also show consistently high levels of racial resentment and are skeptical of claims that there is widespread discrimination against Blacks in contemporary American society.
Demographically, Kentucky’s Core Conservatives tend to be older (about a third each are GenXers and Baby Boomers). There are equal numbers of men and women in this group, and they tend to be more economically affluent, with two-thirds being either middle or upper class. They are also racially homogenous (89% white) and mostly heterosexual (94%). They are also most likely to identify as Evangelical Protestants (45%) with another 31% identifying with some other Christian denomination. Geographically, they tend to be found in all parts of Kentucky, although relatively fewer tend to be present in Congressional District 3 (Louisville). Also, nearly half (49%) report that they own a gun.
GROUP 2: SOLID LIBERALS
Again borrowing Pew’s labels, the second group can be described as “Solid Liberals” and comprise one in five (20%) of all Kentuckians. Two-thirds of Kentucky’s Solid Liberals identify as Democrats, while the remainder are split evenly between Independents and Republicans. Half identify as ideologically liberal and a third as moderate (only 7% identify as conservative). Solid Liberals are most strongly characterized by their opposition to President Trump—only 18% voted for him in 2016 and about as many approved of his job performance and planned to vote for him in 2020. A full 76% approved of Trump’s January 2020 impeachment. During 2019-2020, they were also very pessimistic about the direction of the country, with 73% saying that America was “off on the wrong track” and only 13% saying things were going “in the right direction.”
In terms of policy views, Solid Liberals in Kentucky can be characterized as consistently liberal. About three in five support an assault rifle ban and enacting Medicare for All. Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters are in favor of carbon emission caps, permitting abortion in cases other than rape, incest, or risk to health of the mother, legalizing marijuana, and raising the minimum wage. Four in five support allowing transgender people to serve in the military. Only one in ten support Trump’s border wall and a Muslim-majority country travel ban. Only about a quarter show racial resentment attitudes and three-quarters believe that there is a great deal of anti-Black discrimination in American society.
Demographically-speaking, Kentucky’s Solid Liberals are a little more likely to be women (57%) and skew younger, with more than half (51%) in the GenZ or Millennial generation. Similar to the Core Conservatives, three in five are either middle or upper class. Nearly a quarter are racial/ethnic minorities, with 6% identifying as Latino, 10% Black, and 5% Asian. One in five identify as LGBTQ+ and among all three groups they are least likely to identify as Evangelical Protestants (15%) and most likely to identify as atheist/agnostic (21%) or “nothing in particular” (20%). A majority of Kentucky’s Solid Liberals live in Congressional Districts 3, 4, or 6, the traditional “northern triangle” of Kentucky comprising Louisville, Lexington, and northern Kentucky.
GROUP 3: PRAGMATIC MODERATES
The final political group we might call Kentucky’s “Pragmatic Moderates” and constitute nearly half (46%) of Kentuckians. They are split in their party loyalties, with 46% identifying as Democrats and 39% as Republicans. They are similarly split in their ideological identification, with 38% claiming a “moderate” label, 37% conservative, and 19% liberal. Their views of Donald Trump are similarly mixed—half voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and in the lead-up to the 2020 election, 43% approved of his job performance and 40% planned to vote for him again, while 47% supported his January 2020 impeachment.
What distinguishes these Pragmatic Moderates from either Solid Liberals or Core Conservatives is that they tend to support liberal economic and environmental policy but are more moderate when it comes to social and identity issues. For example, they are about as likely as Solid Liberals to support Medicare for All (71%), legalizing recreational marijuana (69%), and raising taxes on high-income Americans (57%). They also tend to be skeptical about some of President Trump’s signature policies, with only 38% supporting the U.S.-Mexico wall and 24% supporting the ban on Muslims traveling to the U.S. More similar to Core Conservatives, however, they are mixed on supporting broad abortion access (47%) and have more moderate levels of racial resentment; only half agree that there is a lot of discrimination against Blacks in today’s society.
In terms of demographics, Kentucky’s Pragmatic Moderates skew a little toward female (similar to Solid Liberals) with women comprising 58% of the group. They are similarly diverse when it comes to race/ethnicity, with 77% identifying as white, 8% as Latino, and 10% Black. Similar to Core Conservatives, however, they are largely heterosexual (93%) and 35% identify as Evangelical Protestants, with another third claiming some other Christian identity. What is unique about this group in terms of demographics, though, is that more than half (52%) are lower class, earning less than $50,000/year, and only 19% have a college degree (compared to 25% of Core Conservatives and 29% of Solid Liberals). They also tend to be found all around Kentucky, perhaps a little less so in Congressional District 6 (Lexington). Essentially, what characterizes Kentucky’s Pragmatic Moderates is that they are more financially insecure, possibly leading them to support more liberal economic policies while exhibiting measured views toward social policies.
As always, though, demographic indicators are often strongly correlated with one another, making it unclear which characteristics have independent correlations with other factors of interest. Using a more sophisticated statistical analysis that identifies unique correlations between the various political and demographic variables as well as which of the three clusters discussed above (once controlling for the overlapping correlations of all the factors simultaneously including partisan identity) we find that the strongest demographic predictor of a Kentuckian’s public opinion cluster group is religion, specifically whether or not someone identifies as atheist/agnostic.[FN2] Secular Kentuckians make up about 9% of Kentucky’s population and are most likely to be in the Solid Liberal group—58% are Solid Liberals while 29% are Pragmatic Moderates and only 13% are Core Conservatives.
Another key factor revealed by this analysis is race/ethnicity. Blacks, Asians, and “other” identifiers in Kentucky are more likely to be Pragmatic Moderates and less likely to be Core Conservatives than their partisanship would suggest. A full 62% of Black and “other” race/ethnicity-identifying Kentuckians are Pragmatic Moderates, with only a quarter as Solid Liberals and about one in ten Core Conservatives. Similarly, Latinos are less likely to be Solid Liberals than their partisanship would suggest, with only 17% of Latinos being Solid Liberals, 55% Pragmatic Moderates, and 37% Core Conservatives.
Of course, a key question, especially for statewide political candidates, is how many of each of these groups show up on Election Day and who they (might) vote for. This table shows the overall percentage of Kentuckians who said that they voted in the 2016 election who fall into each public opinion group, separated by their political partisanship:
Proportion of regular voting Kentucky electorate, by partisanship and public opinion group
|Core Conservatives||Solid Liberals||Pragmatic Moderates|
|Democrat/leaner||5.6 (46%)||15.8 (10%)||20.3 (10%)|
|Pure Independent||1.2 (77%)||1.1 (62%)||1.7 (62%)|
|Republican/leaner||35.1 (98%)||1.7 (72%)||17.5 (95%)|
This table shows us, for instance, that the largest voting bloc in Kentucky are Core Conservative Republicans who make up 35% of the electorate—Donald Trump received 98% of the two-party vote from this group in 2016. The second largest is the Pragmatic Moderate Democrats who make up 20% of the electorate—Hillary Clinton received 90% of their two-party vote in 2016. Pragmatic Moderate Republicans, for their part, are about 18% of Kentucky’s electorate and voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, although not at the same rate as Core Conservative Republicans. Solid Liberal Democrats are 16% of Kentucky’s electorate and Hillary Clinton won 90% of their two-party votes in 2016.
Republicans hoping to win statewide office in Kentucky, then, really only need the support of Core Conservative and Pragmatic Moderate Republicans to achieve a comfortable majority of the regular Kentucky electorate (53%). Democrats, on the other hand, have an uphill battle to get a majority. Securing the support of Solid Liberal and Pragmatic Moderate Democrats puts them at 36% of the electorate, but even then about 10% of this group tends to cross party lines and vote for Republicans (at least at the national level), putting Democratic candidate votes at closer to 33% of the electorate. They would need to win all Core Conservative Democrats, all Independents (regardless of their ideological group), all Solid Liberal Republicans, and peel off about a quarter of the Pragmatic Moderate Republicans to get to a majority statewide, a challenging task indeed. (Of course, the bar may be a lower if there is a competitive third-party candidate who draws votes away from the Republican candidate.)
This may explain how Republican candidates have won statewide elections in recent years in Kentucky, even though Democrats had a lock on statewide offices for most of the 20th century and Kentucky Democrats are still a sizeable portion of the electorate. The 2019 vote totals for Republican candidates for Agricultural Commissioner, Treasurer, Auditor, Secretary of State, and Attorney General were 58%, 61%, 56%, 53%, and 58%, respectively. This also helps explain Kentucky’s patterns in statewide votes for federal office, including Mitch McConnell’s 58% and Rand Paul’s 57% share of the vote in the 2020 and 2016 U.S. Senate elections, respectively, and Donald Trump’s 62% and 63% attainment in the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections, respectively.[FN3]
FN1 Specifically, this analysis used a k-means cluster analysis data reduction procedure that identifies correlation patterns among various indicators across multiple cases. The goal of the procedure is to identify groups that are consistently homogenous across selected variables. In this case, the clustering procedure was performed among Kentucky respondents only in the Nationscape dataset. Political attitudes included in the analysis were a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, building a wall on the Southern U.S. border, racial resentment, gender resentment, carbon caps, assault rifle bans, eliminate estate tax, raising taxes on those making more than $600,000/year, eliminating debt for graduates of public colleges, conditional abortion access, public option for health insurance, and subsidizing health insurance premiums with taxpayer dollars, preferences for small government with fewer services vs. larger government with more services, and the extent to which the government should try to preserve traditional values. For more information, see here: Pew Research Center. 2017. “Appendix 2: About the Political Typology.”
FN2 Specifically, using a multinomial regression analysis to generate predicted probabilities of belonging to each of the three public opinion categories, using Pragmatic Moderates as the reference category and including gender, age, education, economic class, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, and Congressional district as the independent variables.
FN3 At the same time, Democrat Andy Beshear managed to win an extremely close gubernatorial election in 2019, but this will likely be an outlier going forward given incumbent Matt Bevin’s tenure as governor had sparked numerous controversies, including alienating key constituencies as well as many Republicans in the state legislature, see Cizmar, Anne. 2019. “The Democrats’ Kentucky Win Is an Outlier Which Tells Us Little about 2020.”