A new poll released Monday confirms a fact of which most Americans are well aware: Voters have grown sharply divided along partisan lines over the last quarter-century.
But the poll is striking in its revelation that party affiliations divide Americans more than any other mitigating factor, including gender, class, age and race.
The 25th anniversary edition of the Pew Research Center’s American Values Project, the longest-running study the polling firm conducts, offers a wide-ranging look at the values, trends, partisanship and demographics that have permeated public life in the United States since 1987. Tracking public opinion on 48 political values, Pew’s survey reveals that Americans have grown increasingly divided along party lines over the last 25 years — while the divides based on gender, class, age and race have remained static.
“I don’t think we’re going to surprise many people in showing how polarized this nation has become on party lines,” Michael Dimock, associate director of research at Pew, told TPM. “What’s surprising is how stable the nation is in so many other ways.”
The divide along party lines on values questions — which cover the social safety net, environment and religiosity among other areas — has ballooned to 18 percentage points in 2012. In Pew’s 1987 survey, the average partisan divide was 10 percentage points. Other demographic-based divisions — such as gender, race and class — are no wider now than they were 25 years ago. The chart below, from Pew, illustrates this development.
Dimock said the driving force behind the partisan divide is the defining debate of the 2012 election cycle: the size and role of government. Save for the eight years when President George W. Bush was in office, Republicans have generally distrusted government and its ability to solve the nation’s problems.
Democrats, meanwhile, are much more confident in the role of government. But that split has become even more pronounced since President Barack Obama took office. Forty-one percent of Democrats say that when something is run by the government it is usually inefficient and wasteful, compared with 77 percent of Republicans who say so.
The divide in other areas such as religion and the environment — which Dimock said were once considered “non-controversial spheres” — has also contributed to the widening partisan gap.
“There is such a fundamental sorting going on,” Dimock said. “It might just reflect that more things are aligning along partisan lines. Twenty years ago, there was nothing necessarily secular about the Democratic Party, but now as the nation has modestly shifted in a secular direction, that growing minority has aggregated with one party base.”
The poll highlighted at least one slice of common ground between Republicans and Democrats. In both the Bush and Obama presidencies, during which time the partisan gap proliferated, both parties’ bases have been critical of their own party’s leadership. In the latest Pew survey, 71 percent of Republicans and 58 percent of Democrats say their party has not done a good job of upholding their traditional positions. And both parties have become ideologically uniform in recent years: The GOP is predominantly composed of self-described conservatives, while an increasing number of Democrats call themselves liberals.
“I think what we’re showing is that there is a ground-level basis for this change,” Dimock said. “In a lot of respects, the politicians are really viewing the voters they represent and the parties are drifting further apart.”
Tom Kludt is a newswriter for TPM. A former research intern and polling fellow for TPM, he lives and works in New York City. Tom graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota in May of 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science and History. He can be reached at Tom (at) talkingpointsmemo.com.