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Inside red-and-blue America

Part one of five: A look at America's polarized electorate

(Page 2 of 4)

Significantly, the correlation between ideology and party has been growing much stronger in recent years. Surveys show an uptick in people choosing to be Republicans or Democrats (rather than independent) and in straight-ticket voting. Self-identified conservatives are more and more likely to be Republicans, while self-identified liberals are now almost exclusively Democrats.

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At the same time, experts see greater geographic segregation by party. Compared with 30 or 40 years ago, more states now tilt strongly toward one party or the other. Most notably, the biggest states - California, New York, and Texas - have all transformed in recent decades from electoral battlegrounds into partisan bastions.

Migration and realignment

The polarized electoral map can be traced in part to demographics, with migration and immigration changing the makeup of many states. But it's also the result of ideological realignment, as voters in traditionally conservative states have gravitated toward the Republican Party and voters in liberal states toward the Democrats. "It's not that the voters in Texas have become more conservative," explains Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. "They were always pretty conservative. But now they're Republicans."

The region most dramatically transformed is the South. There, conservative whites have all but abandoned the Democrats, propelled initially by civil rights issues and later by the GOP's growing emphasis on conservative cultural values. Once known as the Democrats' "Solid South," it's now a Bush stronghold. It has helped Republicans go head-to-head with Democrats nationally, after more than half a century of Democratic dominance.

But the South isn't the only region that's changed. There's been a smaller but significant counter-movement in other areas - particularly the Northeast - away from the GOP.

Analysts say the forces propelling this realignment are both top-down and bottom-up. Voters are clearly taking cues from party leaders, who, since the days of Ronald Reagan have become more pointedly ideological. But, as Professor Abramowitz points out, "it's a mutually reinforcing process, because the leaders also respond to the voters - especially if you think about what a Republican or Democratic primary electorate looks like."

At the congressional level, so many districts are now gerrymandered to be safe for one party that the election is essentially determined by the primary contest. One result: candidates tailor their messages to primary voters, who tend to have stronger ideological views.

Technology, too, has played a key role. The parties have been assembling databases to target voters with ads that are ever more tightly honed. It's an effective way of motivating voters, perhaps, but limits voter exposure to a broader range of issues and debate.

The shift is also strategic. With fewer swing voters to compete over - and a lower turnout rate among those voters, anyway - winning elections is now increasingly about generating higher and higher turnout in each party's base. This has led the parties to emphasize more ideological wedge issues, inflaming activists on both sides but leaving many moderate voters feeling unhappy with their choices.

The passion factor

Today's red-blue phenomenon is hardly the most intense political division the nation has seen. The Republic's founding, for example, pitted Federalists against Anti-Federalists in a bitter rivalry that formed a backdrop for the tragic duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. The issue of slavery, of course, cleaved the nation into parties representing North and South.