The American Political Landscape: More Interesting Than You Thought

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In political journalism, we tend to divide the electorate into three categories, though the categories often go by different names. Right, middle, left. Republican, independent, Democratic. Conservative, moderate, liberal. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC.

As a short hand, the categories pass muster, but they are a poor lens for understanding what is really happening in the country. Enter the Pew Research Center, which has released a deeply fascinating analysis of the American electorate that finds eight core categories of voters, and a ninth category called “bystanders,” which does not as a rule participate in the political process. An understanding of these groups will explain much of the behavior of the presidential candidates over the next two years.

–The first two groups that are the easiest to define are the groups on the ideological fringes, the Solid Liberals (which make up 16% of registered voters) and the Staunch Conservatives (which make up 11%). These crowds tend to exist in ideological feedback loops. Solid Liberals are more likely to have advanced degrees, read The New York Times, listen to NPR and live in the northeast. Staunch Conservatives are far more likely to watch Fox News, listen to talk radio, and believe Barack Obama is foreign born. Both groups vote consistently in elections.

–One step in from the edges, we find other groups that form the base of the Democratic and Republican parties. On the right, Pew identifies a group called Main Street Republicans (14% of registered voters), who are generally less doctrinaire in their criticism of government, more supportive of protecting the environment and more skeptical of big business, but still consistent GOP voters. On the left, there are two other groups identified as making up the Democratic base: Hard-Pressed Democrats (15% of electorate), who are blue-collar, struggling financially and more socially conservative; and New Coalition Democrats (9% of electorate), a group of roughly equal parts blacks, whites and Hispanics, who are generally supportive of government, but divided on expanding the social safety net and gay marriage.

–That leaves the middle groupings, who are likely to be the swing voters in 2012, as they always are in presidential years. In 2005, the last time this study was done, Pew identified two middle groups, Upbeats and Disaffecteds. Now Pew sees three: Libertarians (10%) dislike government, but break with many conservatives on social issues and immigration. Disaffecteds (11%) are the nation’s most economically stressed group, with 71% having experienced unemployment in the household in the last year. Notably 41% of this group did not vote in 2010. The Post-Moderns (14%) are a younger group of mostly college graduates, who were largely supportive of Obama in 2008 but turned out in far lower numbers in 2010. They don’t dislike government, but they also take more conservative positions on the New Deal social safety net.

So what do we learn from this? A ton, and it cannot be summarized in a blog post. You should read the full 159 page report here. But it can be said that while the country is historically polarized, the edges do not command all that many of the votes. Elections are still decided by groups that are motivated less by ideology than by identity, whether it be socioeconomic or cultural. Further, one can see in this framework the pathways for victory for both Obama and his Republican challenger in 2010.

Obama has suffered the greatest falloff, since 2008, among Post Moderns and New Coalition Dems, who simply did not turnout in the same numbers in 2010. (Two thirds of New Coalition Dems turned out in 2008, though only 50 percent in 2010.) Also the Republican margin among the struggling disaffecteds jumped between 2008 and 2010, from plus 16 points to plus 38 points. Obama will have to shore up these numbers.

On the GOP side, there is a path for riding economic anxiety to victory, especially if Republicans can find away of preventing Obama from reactivating his young and minority base. Meanwhile, you can see in these groupings some warnings to Republicans about embracing social issues and immigration with too much eagerness. Issues like homosexuality and immigration divide the centrist GOP vote, which the Republican candidate will need to win.