David Frum

06.05.12

The Top Five Takeaways From Pew's Survey of the Electorate

The Pew Research Center has released a new survey of the values held by the American population. The main takeaway: Americans are more polarized than ever:

As Americans head to the polls this November, their values and basic beliefs are more polarized along partisan lines than at any point in the past 25 years. Unlike in 1987, when this series of surveys began, the values gap between Republicans and Democrats is now greater than gender, age, race or class divides.

The entire survey is worth a read and contains more information then can be summarized in a single post. With that said, here are the top five takeaways from the survey.

1. We are polarized.

This is the headline point from the survey, the gap between what defines a "Republican" from a "Democrat" has only gotten wider since the survey first started in 1987:

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More then any other factor, such as religion, race, or income, party affiliation is the biggest indicator of different answers being provided to the survey.

Other surveys show that Congress has become a more polarized institution, its a fact that may reflect the mood of the general population.

2. There are no Independents.

One of the more persistent ideas that circulates in punditry is that there is large and untapped population of "independents" who don't affiliate with either party and who could be their own political force if they got their act together.

Very often, I notice that many of these independents are described as "fiscally conservative and socially liberal" - that is, sharing the governing prejudices of the kind of person who tends to write about opinion surveys.

The only problem is, such "No Lables" independents don't exist. While the Pew survey does show that more people self-identify as 'independent'', in reality, many of those independents have strong partisan leanings and are really independents in name only:

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The reality is, Americans are becoming a more consistently ideological people:

Overall, a growing number of Americans – including both partisan and many independents – are expressing consistently liberal or consistently conservative views across a wider range of political values than at any previous point in the past quarter century.

3. The secular Millennials.

On the survey's measure of faith, Millennials look set to become the most secular generation in recent American history:

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The nation as a whole does remain highly religious but unless the young experience a religious revival in the decades ahead, the future looks less expressively Christian than the recent past.

4. The GOP is white and old.

Pew minces no words when describing the differences between the Republican and Democratic coalitions:

Demographically, Republicans remain overwhelmingly white and their average age now approaches 50. Fully 87% of Republicans are non-Hispanic whites, a figure which has changed little since 2000.

In contrast to Republicans, Democrats have grown increasingly diverse. A narrow majority of Democrats (55%) are non-Hispanic whites, down from 64% in 2000. As in recent years, most Democrats are women (59%). And while the average age of self-described Democrats has risen since 2008 – from 46.9 to 47.7 – Democrats continue to be younger than Republicans on average (47.7 vs. 49.7).

These are aren't surprising figures, they contain the same demographic warnings that others have made about the trajectories of the two parties.

The numbers suggest that the GOP is going to have problems being a relevant political party if it continues to be more dependent on older voters while continually losing ground to younger ones.

5. Republicans don't like their Party.

This was a curiously contradictory piece of information. On the one hand, the GOP as a whole is not getting good marks from its own members for its performance:

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On the other hand, of the Republicans who do approve of the GOP's performance, most of those Republicans are conservative as opposed to moderate:

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This might just be an expression of frustration at Republicans for not being the party in power. Democrats are disappointed in their party to but not to the same degree that Republicans are. It would be interesting to see if Republican dissatisfaction held under a Republican president as well.