Why Bipartisanship Is Losing and Polarization Is Winning

Amy Walter
October 25, 2017

Of all the great work done by Pew Research Center, one of my favorites is their Political Typology—a deep dive into the issues that define and divide the two parties (including intra-party schisms) that was just released this week. Most of the time we look at voters in a static, two-dimensional framework: Democrat or Republican; older or younger; Black or White. This project, however, is the political equivalent of an MRI, giving us a deeper 3D imaging of the political electorate "based on their values, attitudes and party affiliation."

It’s easy to get lost in all of the remarkable data in this 100-plus page report. Political, demographic and data junkies will find more than enough to keep them occupied. For me, it provided a stark roadmap to our current polarization. Not surprisingly, Americans on the farthest extremes of the spectrum—as Pew calls them the most “deeply partisan and ideological groups”—are also the most engaged politically. Meanwhile, those with the "most mixed political values" (i.e. those who are less attached to party and ideology) are the least engaged in politics. In other words, those who are least likely to compromise have the most influence on the candidates and the issues debated in this country. The typography works like this. Pew took a survey of 5,000 adults this summer. Based on their responses to 12 different questions "about social and political values and their party affiliation," Pew assigned individuals to one of eight core typology groups. There are four Republican-oriented and four Democratic-oriented groups.

Republicans were divided into: Core Conservatives (traditional free market conservatives); Country-First Conservatives (more socially conservative, populist); Market Skeptic Republicans (younger, skeptical of institutions); and New Era Enterprisers (young, economic conservatives, less critical of government).

Democrats were divided into: Solid Liberals (robust role of government, socially liberal); Opportunity Democrats (more centrist); Disaffected Democrats (majority non-white, cynical about institutional progress); Devout and Diverse (less strongly tied to Democratic identity, more socially conservative).

As a percent of the general electorate and among registered voters, Consistent Conservatives and Solid Liberals are the largest blocs—but not by much. Solid Liberals make up 19 percent of the overall pool of registered voters while Consistent Conservatives comprise about 15 percent. But, among those described as "politically engaged" (defined as those who are registered to vote, follow government and public affairs and say they vote always or nearly always), these two groups make up more than 45 percent of the electorate (20 percent Consistent Conservative and 25 percent Solid Liberal).

And, among their own parties, these two groups—Core Conservatives and Solid Liberals—have even more influence.

While Core Conservatives make up just over one-third of GOP registered voters, they make up more than 40 percent of "engaged" Republicans. Among Democrats, Solid Liberals comprise 38 percent of the registered Democrats but almost half (48 percent) of “engaged” Democrats. These two groups are also the most interested in the 2018 midterms with more than 90 percent of each group saying it matters who controls Congress next year. Interest in the 2018 election among the six other typology groups ranged from 65 to 82 percent.

 
Core Conservatives
Solid Liberals
Percent of General Electorate 13% 16%
Percent of Registered Voters 15% 19%
Percent of Politically Engaged 20% 25%
Percent of Politically Engaged Within The Party 43% 48%
Percent who say it matters which party controls Congress next year 93% 97%

As Pew’s Director of Research Carroll Doherty told me, these groups "have a greater impact than the [topline] numbers suggest. They both punch above their weight." The views of these influential groups are more monolithic—and radical—than the country as a whole. This is why both these things can be true: the country is less deeply divided on issues than it seems and yet we are more polarized than ever.

For example, Americans are evenly divided on the question of whether the Islamic religion does or does not encourage violence more than other religions (49 percent said it doesn’t, 43 percent it does). Yet, among Core Conservatives, 79 percent say Islam encourages violence, while 83 percent of Solid Liberals says it doesn’t. This same pattern shows up on issues ranging from the role of the social safety net, to the proper size of government to support for the Black Lives Matters Movement.


Islamic Religion

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Size of Government

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Social Safety Net

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Black Lives Matter Movement

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It’s also hard to have discussions with those on the other side of the political spectrum from you when you literally live—or want to live—in totally different places. Americans as a whole are evenly divided on the kind of community in which they’d prefer to live. Forty-eight percent picked a community where house are larger but farther from schools and stores while forty-seven picked a community where the houses are smaller and closer together but where schools and stores are walkable. Among Core Conservatives, 69 percent picked larger house, while 70 percent of Solid Liberals picked smaller houses with more walkable communities.

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The influence these two partisan groups have on the party—and their solid support of it—is also consequential when it comes to elections.

While Core Conservatives are more free trade oriented and immigrant friendly than the president—68 percent say that the global economy is a "good thing that helps market grow" and 50 percent think that "it’s best for the US to be active in world affairs"—they are also the strongest supporters of Trump. Trump has a 93 percent approval rating among this group, with eighty percent approving strongly of him. In other words, even when they differ with the president, they support him almost unconditionally.

Solid Liberals are not only the most politically active, they are also some of the most financially active as well. Almost half of these voters—who are also the most highly educated and affluent of the Democratic coalition—contributed to a candidate in the last year (which includes 2016). This gives them tremendous influence to pick the kind of candidates who run—and win—in both primary and general elections. They are more supportive of robust government involvement than any of the other three Democratic leaning groups—96 percent believe "government regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest" while 97 percent say that "government has a responsibility to make sure all Americans have health coverage." How much financial aid could a moderate, business oriented Democrat find from this group?

Why does all of this matter? At the same time that politicians, pundits and editorial boards are denouncing the increasing polarization of the body politic, the influence of those who are the least likely to compromise is as strong as ever. There is something of a chicken and an egg question to all of this. Does one become more extreme in one’s views the more engaged they become in politics, or are the most strident in their views the most attracted to participating in it? Moreover, would those Americans who sit on the sidelines today get more engaged politically if it were less like a zero-sum game? It’s hard to know the answers to these. But, what we do know now is that the most influential and consequential groups of voters in American politics today are the ones who are the least likely to find a way to common ground.