American politics has long been defined as red vs. blue, and everything about the 2012 election speaks to the chasm that separates the two parties. But a major new study highlights how those divisions are only a part of the dynamic shaping the political landscape.
The study, conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, underscores that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whoever wins the White House in November.
Breaking down the stereo-typical red and blue shows sometimes deep divisions among those who describe themselves as Democrats and among those who identify as Republicans. Although most fall in line when it comes to choosing a president, the differences in political views are revealing.
Republicans and Democrats? Not that simple. There are many shades of each. See how the parties tend to break down into several subgroups.
But the study — based on a poll of more than 3,000 randomly selected adults — also illuminates in striking new ways another reality about the contours of politics. Like families, the parties coalesce to repel threats from outside — typified this summer by the scorched-earth tactics of the campaigns of President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. But both parties also are fractious coalitions of people who may converge on some core issues but whose worldviews, economic situations and attitudes on policy are far from uniform.
These disparate and ever-evolving coalitions present challenges for both Obama and Romney. They are why Romney struggled through much of the Republican nominating contest to win over key parts of his party and only united the GOP coalition by picking Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential running mate. It is why Obama has faced dissonance and disappointment over the way he has governed from some elements of the Democratic Party, particularly many liberals who nonetheless back him strongly for reelection.
The two major parties will be on display over the coming weeks at their national conventions. Republicans go first, starting Aug. 27 in Tampa. Democrats meet in Charlotte the following week. Both will try to project an image of unity as they draw distinctions with their opponents. But Romney’s selection of Ryan is a reminder that the parties recognize success in November depends in part on keeping their coalitions together and energized.
The Post-Kaiser survey examined the breadth and diversity of the electorate to explore the changing shape of a Republican coalition that has become more Southern in its base and more conservative in its views, and yet encompasses groups with significant disagreements over whether confrontation or cooperation with the Democrats is the preferred path for governing.
The study looks, too, at a Democratic Party that, while women make up a clear majority of supporters and grass-roots activists have a large voice, is a coalition of groups with divergent views on government regulation of the economy, the size of government, the role of religion in public life and such hot-button social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
This article focuses on those Americans who, when asked, say they identify with either the Republican or Democratic Party. A later article will look at those Americans who call themselves independent — a fast-growing part of the electorate — and explore the question of just how independent they really are.