New numbers from Gallup suggest that the percentage of Americans self-identifying as "conservative" is on the rise:
It is important to keep in mind what this means, and what it doesn't mean:
It is not necessarily a reflection of policy preferences. For example, views of the role of government swing pretty wildly while ideological self-identification is flat. These views are also more tied to which partisan self-identification than to ideological self-identification. For example, take a long-running poll conducted by Pew:
Most Americans do not have particularly thoroughgoing, coherent ideological perspectives. So, a change in ideological self-identification does not necessarily reflect a change in policy preference.
What it does mean is that the Republican base has increased in size. Ideological self-identification is a very good predictor of voting habits. With Democrats consistently receiving only 15-20% of the conservative vote since the early 1980's (following the loss of the "solid South" in Presidential elections), a 5% shift toward conservative self-identification is a definite win for Republicans. A shift of this size in the 2008 electorate would have resulted in Obama only defeating McCain by 2%, instead of by 7%. Combined with an enthusiasm gap of at least 2-3%, this ideological shift thus represents the entirety of Republican gains since 2008.
Without more specifics, or perhaps even a larger sample size (Gallup sampled 8,000 people for the 2010 poll), attempting to pinpoint which groups are shifting toward increased conservative self-identification is pure guesswork. Still, to speculate, my bet is that this is an exacerbation of the white Christian vs non-white and / or non-Christian dynamic that has been underlying the two major political coalitions for some time now.
Despite the greater population growth among demographics that tend to vote for Democrats, Republicans always had a path to remain competitive electorally if they increased their share of the white Christian vote, and remained steady among non-whites and non-Christians. I have feeling that is exactly what is happening right now, and the two coalitions are becoming even more demographically polarized than ever. Things are going to get a lot worse in this regard before they get better.