Beyond 'red-blue,' parties are riven within

A survey finds both Republicans and Democrats face internal divides, from culture to welfare.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Political wonks of the world, unite. Even during that moment on Wednesday when Washington wondered if it was under attack, there was probably a party animal or two who didn't want to pull themselves away from the Pew Research Center's new report, The 2005 Political Typology.

Only the fourth of its kind since 1987, and the first since 1999, the Pew survey of 2,000 adults provides the most nuanced breakdown of the American electorate since the 9/11 attacks, and stands some of the conventional wisdom of current politics on its head.

The divisions of US politics go way beyond the red-state/blue-state shorthand; in fact, the research finds "significant cleavages" within each major party that portend challenges for both as they balance the demands of their core supporters with the need to attract swing voters.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

The top line contains good news for Republicans: The national security theme that shot to the fore on Sept. 11, 2001, and has remained there since, significantly altered the 2005 typology from its predecessors, to President Bush's advantage last November.

"Foreign-affairs assertiveness now almost completely distinguishes Republican-oriented voters from Democratic-oriented voters," the Pew report states. It later adds: "In contrast, attitudes relating to religion and social issues are not nearly as important in determining party affiliation."

Furthermore, while the last election was widely seen as a "battle of the bases" - with each party working hard to turn out its core, natural constituencies, while paying less attention to the groups in the middle - in fact, the swing voters held the key. Each party claims equal numbers of adherents, and it was those middle groups, including some conservative Democrats, that reelected Bush.

"The Democrats have a double problem," says John Green, director of the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "How do they compete on these foreign-policy issues for the people in the middle? But also, how do they get ready to do that, given they have these big internal fissures?"

Party divisions and core groups

According to the typology, Democrats are divided over cultural issues, such as homosexuality and the government's role in morality. Both parties are divided over immigration. Republicans are divided over the role of government in helping the needy, the power of corporations, and the environment. But as long as national security remains central, the Republicans' internal differences will pale in significance.

In the Republican coalition, a new core group has emerged: Pro-Government Conservatives. According to Pew, they deviate from the usual GOP orthodoxy in believing that the government can play a positive role in society, for example by helping the poor and by issuing regulations. Members are typically younger, female, Southern, and financially pressured. They are also strongly religious and socially conservative.

The other two core Republican groups are Social Conservatives, who are less broadly supportive of government's role in society than the Pro-Government Conservatives, and Enterprisers. Pew describes this last group as "highly patriotic and strongly pro-business," opposing social welfare and overwhelmingly supportive of an assertive foreign policy.

The Democratic subsets

The largest group on the Democratic side is the Liberals, who oppose an "assertive foreign policy," strongly support environmental protection, and solidly back government assistance to the poor. Like the Enterprisers, they are affluent and well educated. Conservative Democrats, in contrast, are religious and socially conservative, and include many blacks and Hispanics.

The third Democratic group, called Disadvantaged Democrats, is predominantly female, poorly educated, and pessimistic about the future. Members of this group mistrust both government and business, but still believe government should help the poor.

In the middle sit three groups: Upbeats, Disaffecteds, and Bystanders. The first are well-educated, generally informed, and politically moderate, and feel good about their personal finances and the direction of the country. The second group is cynical and less well-off. The third, mostly young adults, are largely on the sidelines.

During the 1990s, these three middle groups were not especially partisan, but they now lean decidedly toward the GOP. The Upbeats, who still do not formally identify themselves as Republican, voted for Bush 4 to 1 last November. Part of that is a result of Bush's personal appeal to this group, and so with Bush not on the ticket four years from now, Democrats are still hopeful they can lure some of these voters into their camp.

What polarization has wrought

One sign that polarization is indeed a reality is the fact that the Liberal group has nearly doubled in the past six years, now representing 19 percent of registered voters. And there are no more "New Democrats" - the centrist Democratic philosophy that Bill Clinton rode to the White House.

"This suggests that some of the growth among Liberals comes from former New Democrats, whose views on national security and government regulation have become more polarized after more than four years of GOP control," writes Pew.

For the New Democrats in town, this was not a happy piece of news. But it was an understandable one, says Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a New Democrat think tank.

"Polarization has driven and moved everybody in an anti-Bush stance, and that has eroded some of the center ground on which bipartisan politics used to be conducted," says Mr. Marshall. "The most important finding [by Pew] is that the Republicans control the center. That's why they hold the majority, albeit by a slender margin."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...