Survey Finds Americans Are Increasingly Divided

By Ronald Brownstein Times Staff Writer

Across a range of domestic and foreign policy issues, the gap between the views of Republican and Democratic partisans is now wider than at any point in the last 16 years, a major new survey has found.

The survey, by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, portrays a nation profoundly polarized between two political camps that are virtually identical in size but inimical in their beliefs on virtually all major questions.

The center, which began measuring public opinion in 1987, found in its new poll that the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats was greater than ever on topics such as national security, the social safety net, big business and equal rights for minorities.

“The extraordinary spirit of national unity that followed the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001, has dissolved amid rising polarization and anger,” said Andrew Kohut, Pew’s director.

Since the terrorist attacks, according to the new poll, the share of Americans who consider themselves Republicans has increased to the point that the GOP, for the first time since the party’s takeover of Congress in 1994, has drawn even with Democrats in public support.


The poll also found voters split almost exactly in half on whether they intend to support President Bush or a Democrat in the 2004 presidential race -- and dividing along the same lines of class, race, gender and religious attitudes as in the razor-thin election of 2000.

“It is still the 50-50 nation,” Kohut said.

The poll measured the views of 2,528 adults, an unusually large sample, from July 14 through Aug. 5. The group polled another 1,515 adults from Oct. 15 through Oct. 19 to update opinions on Bush and the war in Iraq. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for the October survey, and 2 percentage points for the questions posed in the summer.

The survey captures several long-term shifts in the currents of U.S. politics. Among the key trends:

Polarized Views

Across a battery of 24 questions measuring political and policy attitudes, the survey found that the average difference between Republican and Democratic attitudes is about 50% larger than in the late 1980s.

On specific issues, 72% of Democrats now say government should do more to help needy people even if that means a bigger federal budget deficit, while 39% of Republicans agree. That 33-point difference is the largest the poll has recorded.

Likewise, while 69% of Republicans say the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, 44% of Democrats agree. That 25-point gap is also the largest the poll has recorded -- and nearly triple the difference in polls taken as recently as 1997.

The gap is also the widest it’s been on the question of whether corporations make too much profit: Nearly three-quarters of Democrats agree, compared with just less than half of Republicans.

Looking solely at white voters, the poll found 55% of Republicans compared with 34% of Democrats agreed that “we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country” -- that, too, is the largest gap the survey has recorded.

On other policy choices, the poll reported that more than four-fifths of Republicans believed preemptive war was often or sometimes justified, compared with half of Democrats. Similarly, while 85% of Republicans believed it was the right decision to invade Iraq, 54% of Democrats said it was wrong.

On virtually all of these issues, independents typically take positions that fall in between the attitudes expressed by partisans. But there is some evidence in the survey that independents also are polarizing between those who lean toward the Democrats and those closer to the GOP. For instance, on both the peace-through-strength and government-aid-to-the-needy questions, attitudes among voters who lean Democratic or Republican are virtually indistinguishable from members of each party.

Within this overall pattern of polarization, the survey found that Democratic voters moved markedly to the left since the Clinton administration. The percentage of Democrats who said government should do more to help the needy has jumped by nearly a fourth since 1999, while the share who accepted the peace-through-strength argument has plummeted by more than a fifth since 1997.

That movement, analysts say, may reflect both the waning influence of Clinton, who offered a mostly centrist agenda, and the sharp Democratic backlash against Bush.

Republican attitudes on these questions, although still predominantly conservative, have changed less in recent years.

In their attitudes toward the political parties, Americans are increasingly dividing along lines of values.

In 1987, Pew found about 7 in 10 Republican and Democratic voters expressed strong religious beliefs in their answers to questions meant to measure such attitudes. Today, the figures for Democrats are the same, while the share of Republicans with strong religious beliefs has edged up near 80%.

Division in Values

The study found religious belief is now as strong a factor as income in predicting which party voters will support. And like other recent studies, the poll suggests that religious practice may be an even stronger predictor of partisan behavior than religious belief. The survey found that one of the sharpest divides in attitudes toward Bush’s reelection followed the frequency of church attendance.

Overall, the poll found voters split evenly, 43% to 43%, on whether they would prefer Bush or an unnamed Democrat in 2004. But Bush led by 26 percentage points among voters who attended church at least once a week, and among those who attended either weekly or a few times a month. Those who attended church only once or twice a year gave the Democrat a narrow margin, while those who attended rarely or never preferred the Democrat by 24 points.

That stark division tracked almost identically the pattern found by exit polls in the 2000 race between Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

Growing Tolerance

The poll reported greater tolerance since 1987 on several questions involving race and homosexuality. Although gaps still exist along party and religious lines, the trend toward tolerance is significant among both Democrats and Republicans, and the religiously devout and the secular.

For instance, the share of Americans who believe “it’s all right for blacks and whites to date” has jumped from 48% in 1987 to 76% now. The share who say school boards should have the right to fire known homosexuals has dropped from 52% in 1987 to 35% today, with the declines consistent across lines of partisanship, income and religious belief. Divisions remain greater on abortion, with half of Republicans saying they support stricter laws against the practice, while 70% of Democrats oppose such efforts.

Partisan Balance

Combining all of its surveys since the Sept. 11 attacks, the Pew Center found the two parties drawing almost exactly equal support from the public, with 31% of adults calling themselves Democrats and 30% Republicans. (The rest didn’t identify with either side.)

That’s an improvement for the GOP since the late 1990s, when Pew surveys gave the Democrats a 6-percentage-point edge. Since World War II, polls by various organizations have found Republicans even in partisan identification with the Democrats only twice: toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1988 and immediately after the GOP congressional landslide in 1994.

Ominously for Democrats, Pew found gains for the GOP above the national average in several swing states, including Iowa, Michigan, West Virginia, Minnesota and Florida.