A Complex Landscape for 2012

On May 4th, the Pew Research Center released a new poll on political affiliation, titled Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology, and it presents a complex landscape for the 2012 election…for both parties.

Their opening summary of the findings:

With the economy still struggling and the nation involved in multiple military operations overseas, the public’s political mood is fractious. In this environment, many political attitudes have become more doctrinaire at both ends of the ideological spectrum, a polarization that reflects the current atmosphere in Washington.

Yet at the same time, a growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse. Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.

For political leaders in both parties, the challenge is not only one of appeasing ideological and moderate “wings” within their coalitions, but rather holding together remarkably disparate groups, many of whom have strong disagreements with core principles that have defined each party’s political character in recent years.

Pew segments the people polled into the following categories –

On the political right:

  • Staunch Conservatives take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues – on the size and role of government, on economics, foreign policy, social issues and moral concerns. Most agree with the Tea Party and even more very strongly disapprove of Barack Obama’s job performance.
  • Main Street Republicans a second core group of Republicans – also is conservative, but less consistently so.

On the left:

  • Solid Liberals express diametrically opposing views from the Staunch Conservatives on virtually every issue. Solid Liberals are predominantly white.
  • New Coalition Democrats minorities make up greater shares of this category, including nearly equal numbers of whites, African Americans and Hispanics. New Coalition Democrats are distinguished by their upbeat attitudes in the face of economic struggles.
  • Hard-Pressed Democrats are financially struggling, this group about a third African American.

Unlike Solid Liberals, both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.

In the middle, Independents have played a determinative role in the last three national elections. Pew says that the three groups in the center of the political typology have very little in common, aside from their avoidance of partisan labels.

  • Libertarians are largely white, well-educated and affluent. They have a relatively secular outlook on some social issues, including homosexuality and abortion. But Republican-oriented Libertarians are far more critical of government, less supportive of environmental regulations, and more supportive of business than are Post-Moderns.
  • Post-Moderns are also largely white, well-educated and affluent, have the same relatively secular outlook on some social issues as Libertarians but are far less critical of government, more supportive of environmental regulations, and less supportive of business than Libertarians.
  • Disaffecteds, the other main group of independents, are financially stressed and cynical about politics. Most lean to the Republican Party, though they differ from the core Republican groups in their support for increased government aid to the poor.

And finally, the people who choose not to participate.

  • Bystanders, largely consign themselves to the political sidelines and for the most part are not included in the Pew analysis. These are the people who don’t vote and seemingly don’t care.

Roughly half of Disaffecteds, New Coalition Democrats and Hard-Pressed Democrats have household incomes below $30,000 a year. Fewer than a quarter in any of the other five groups are in this income range.

Pew has also sliced these groups as parts of the general public and registered voters.

In studying this data, it is hard to find good news for either major party. In fact, it seems that it is bad news for Republicans as the “out of power” party in the Senate and the White House. Due to the fact that Pew found a profound distrust of politicians in general…

As a whole, Americans are cynical about elected officials, with most saying politicians don’t care what average Americans think (69%) and that they lose touch with voters back home quickly (72%).

…controlling the House is a disadvantage as long as gridlock continues and if the public adopts a “do nothing” view of he House Republicans, the party truly is over. With this degree of apparent instability and churn in the electorate, the likely result is that they will prefer consistency and return Obama to the Oval Office, sort of a “better off with the Devil you know, rather than the one you don’t” philosophy.

While this sounds like bad news for Republicans, there is as strong indication that conservative policies are a winner. Republican success will be directly related to how many conservative policies they represent. Let’s look at a couple of conservative beliefs.

Self determination: If you work hard, you can get ahead:

Pew found that:

A majority of the public (62%) says most people can get ahead if they’re willing to work hard while 34% say hard work and determination are no guarantee of success. A clear majority of the core Republican groups as well as Libertarians and Post-Moderns think that most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard.

New Coalition Democrats also are more likely than Hard-Pressed Democrats and Disaffecteds to say that people who work hard can get ahead. By a two-to-one margin more New Coalition Democrats say people can get ahead if they work hard (64%) than say hard work and determination do not guarantee success (32%). Hard-Pressed Democrats and Disaffecteds have a much more divided view with only about half saying hard work can guarantee success.

Solid Liberals are among the most skeptical that everyone has it in their power to succeed in life. Half say hard work and determination are no guarantee of success, while 45% say most people can get ahead if they are willing to work hard.

Government is a problem: Government is wasteful and inefficient:

Pew found that by a margin of 55 to 39 that the statement “government is almost always wasteful and inefficient” was agreed to. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who identified with the GOP were the most vocal:

Looking at the broad Republican coalition, the core GOP groups and Republican-oriented independent groups are strongly critical of government… All four groups in the broad GOP coalition express overwhelmingly negative opinions about government performance. While the Republican groups agree on the government’s performance, they differ over government’s role – specifically when it comes to aiding the poor and needy. On this issue, the Disaffecteds – by far the lowest-income group in the GOP coalition – break with other Republican and Republican-oriented groups.

What I found surprising was this:

Fully 68% of Hard-Pressed Democrats – financially struggling Democratic loyalists – say that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient. On this measure, Hard-Pressed Democrats find more in common with the GOP coalition than with other Democratic groups and the Democratic-leaning Post-Moderns.

Less surprising was this:

…high percentages across all typology groups say they are distrustful of government.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing that the poll revealed were the prevailing views on the interpretation of the Constitution. My position as a “traditionalist” is that this document is meant as a statement of principles, principles so basic in construction and universal truth that they are unchanging and transcend time and societal mores.

While Americans as a whole are divided over whether the Supreme Court should base its rulings on what the Constitution means in current times (50%) or what it meant as originally written (45%), most typology groups have a clear preference for one of these approaches.

To varying degrees, all Republican and Republican-leaning groups favor an originalist approach. By more than eight-to-one, Staunch Conservatives say the Court should base its rulings on its understanding of the Constitution as originally written (88% vs. 10%). Most Main Street Republicans (64%) and Libertarians (70%) also clearly favor this position, although with less consensus. Disaffecteds are somewhat more divided; 55% favor an originalist approach while 36% say the Court should base its rulings on current understanding.

On the Democratic side of the political spectrum, Solid Liberals are the strongest proponents of the Court basing its rulings on its understanding of what the Constitution means in current times (81% say this; just 15% favor an originalist approach). The Democratic-leaning Post-Moderns also overwhelmingly favor interpreting the Constitution in the context of current times (70% vs. 27% originally written). New Coalition and Hard-Pressed Democrats are more divided. Slim majorities of both groups say the nation’s highest court should base its decisions on current understanding of the Constitution.

I believe that the Founders foresaw that these principles are so core to what America means that they would need little “interpretation”. My position has long been that if they don’t mean what they say, then why even have a Constitution – why memorialize them by committing them to paper if they are meant to be ignored, twisted or used counter to original intent?

In a confusingly complex accounting of the American political battlefield, there are some important insights for Republicans as they chart a path to 2012:

  • The economy ranks ahead of social issues.
  • Reduction/making government more efficient is a winner. Government is seen as neither efficient or trusted.
  • A significant number of Americans hold conservative principles, either socially or economically.

Talk Amongst Yourselves:

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.