No, Partisan Polarization Is NOT The New Normal

In still another manifestation of a familiar media theme, a front page article in yesterday’s Washington Post proclaims: “Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whomever wins the White House in November.”  Drawing on results from a survey co-sponsored by the Kaiser Foundation, Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write, “Partisan polarization once was considered an affliction only of elected officials and political elites. Now it has gone mainstream. Citizens’ ties to their political parties are stronger than ever, and passions on issues are intensely felt.”

By now you should know why the survey evidence Balz and Cohen cite does not, in fact, prove that “polarization is the new normal”.  I have made this argument before, but as long as the national news media continue to present a misleading read of survey data, I’m going to persist in trying to knock the story down.

As with similar media claims regarding a deeply polarized electorate Balz and Cohen’s case rests on two sets of survey data: longitudinal polling results that indicate more people are calling themselves strong partisans, and cross-sectional data showing differences in how self-proclaimed Democrats and Republicans respond to questions regarding a number of hot-button issues.  In both cases, however, the survey evidence is open to a different interpretation.  To see this, however, the reader would have to look at the actual survey data rather than simply relying on Balz and Cohen’s description of that data in the main article.  I suspect very few readers will take the time to do so.  So I’ll do it for them.

Let’s start with the longitudinal data. Balz and Cohen note that in a similar Kaiser study from 1998, “41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they considered themselves “strong” partisans. In the new Post-Kaiser survey, those numbers have shot up to 65 and 62 percent, respectively.”  That’s true, but what they don’t say is that the overall number of self-professed Democrats, Republicans and Independents has remained remarkably stable in that period.

Democrat   Republican   Independent   Other/None   No opinion

8/5/12       34          25            34          4              3

6/3/07       36          27            29          4              3

8/18/98      30          27            30         12              1

In short, we don’t see Independents flocking to either party, which one might expect to be the case if the electorate was becoming more partisan. In fact, there may have been a slight increase in the number of independents during the last 14 years.  How, then, do we reconcile the growth in “strong” partisans with the overall stability in partisan identification?  The answer is one I’ve discussed before: what Balz and Cohen are documenting is a process of party sorting, not partisan polarization.  As research by Mo Fiorina, Sam Abrams and Jeremy Pope indicates, when ideology increasingly matches up with party labels – Republicans more uniformly conservative, and Democrats more liberal – it becomes easier for people to identify more strongly with a party label even if their own political views have not become more partisan.  That’s what Balz and Cohen are picking up in the survey data: voters are not more polarized – party labels are.

But what of the individual survey questions in the latest study that purport to show huge differences in how Republicans and Democrats respond to questions that address fundamental political issues, such as the role of government in our lives?  My answer is largely the same: rather than indicating growing partisan polarization, the results are instead measuring the process of party sorting.  For instance, as Balz and Cohen note, “One set of answers is particularly revealing: The number of Republicans who feel strongly that the government controls too much of daily life jumped 24 percentage points since the 1998 survey, to 63 percent. The number of Democrats strongly disagreeing with the assertion doubled.”

But here are the actual trends over time:

a. Government controls too much of our daily lives

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    60       41         19      39       21         18          1        1

Dem     38       21         17      58       27         31          1        2

Ind     65       45         21      34       21         12          1        *

Rep     81       63         18      18       11          8          *        *

8/18/98   60       35         26      39       28         10          1        *

In 14 years, the proportion of registered voters who think government controls too much of our daily lives has not changed! The same stability holds for opinions regarding whether government or individuals should be primarily responsible for improving peoples’ standard of living:

Gov’t in Washington          Not gov’t

should do everything     responsibility, each

possible to improve     person  should take    Neither     No

the standard of living    care of themselves     (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12           52                      44               NA        4

Dem            76                      20               NA        4

Ind            47                      48               NA        4

Rep            26                      71               NA        3

9/1/02           56                      39                2        3

8/30/99          57                      38                4        1

8/18/98          51                      46                -        3

Rather than growing polarization, we see instead almost no change in public attitudes on these fundamental questions. Fine, you respond, but what about the partisan breakdown that Balz and Cohen cite? Surely that proves the public is deeply split along partisan lines.

Not necessarily.  Remember, I am not arguing that the views of Republicans and Democrats are identical – only that they are not deeply divided in a way that makes compromise impossible, as Balz and Cohen would have us believe.  Part of the problem in interpreting these results is that the survey questions are often worded in ways that make it difficult for respondents to provide nuanced answers.  Instead, they are typically told they must choose between one of two extreme positions.  So, for example, the results cited by Balz and Cohen regarding whether government controls too much of our lives are based on this survey question: “Do you personally agree or disagree with the following statement? Government controls too much of our daily lives.”  What answer do I give if I agree sometimes, and disagree other times, depending on the issue?  Yes, it’s possible for respondents to answer “neither”, but the agree/disagree format certainly doesn’t encourage a more nuanced response.

And so it goes with most of the questions on which Balz and Cohen rely to support their claim of a divided public. Consider question 17: “Would you say you favor a smaller federal government with fewer services, or larger federal government with many services?”  Again, the question wording practically begs for a split along partisan lines, even if Democrats and Republicans aren’t that far apart on their views regarding the proper role of government.  If forced to choose between the two answers, we shouldn’t be surprised that Republicans lean one way, and Democrats the other.  But this is not necessarily evidence of a deep divide along partisan lines.

At the same time, Balz and Cohen play down survey results that indicate Americans are becoming increasingly tolerant of opposing views, particularly on moral issues, than they were 14 years ago.  Consider the results to three questions that directly address tolerance on social values:

b. We should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards even if we think they are wrong:

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    75       44         31      23       11         12          1        1

Dem     80       54         27      18        8         10          1        1

Ind     75       46         29      23       12         11          *        2

Rep     68       29         38      30       13         17          1        1

9/17/00   71       37         35      26       14         12         NA        2

8/18/98   70       30         40      27       15         12          1        1


e. Americans are too tolerant and accepting of behaviors that in the past were considered immoral or wrong:

——— Agree ———   ——- Disagree ——–   Neither     No

NET   Strongly   Somewhat   NET   Somewhat   Strongly    (vol.)   opinion

8/5/12    61       38         23      36       17         19          1        2

Dem     53       29         24      44       18         26          *        3

Ind     57       34         23      40       20         20          1        2

Rep     77       55         22      20       12          9          *        2

9/17/00   70       43         28      28       16         12         NA        2

8/18/98   69       42         27      29       18         11          1        1


Finally: 4. Would you rather see religious and spiritual values have (more) influence in politics and public life than they do now, (less) influence, or about the same influence as they do now?

More influence   Less influence   About the same   No opinion

8/5/12         30               36               32             2

Dem          21               42               35             1

Ind          26               39               33             2

Rep          49               21               28             2

9/1/02*        44               21               33             2

8/18/98*       38               22               38             2

*2002 and 1998: Would you rather see religious and spiritual values have (greater /less) influence…

On all three questions, while there are partisan differences, in the aggregate the movement is toward more toleration of opposing views, and less willingness to see religion and spiritual issues injected into politics.  This is is not evidence of an electorate that is growing more culturally divided.

But what about those hot-button cultural wedge issues, such as abortion, that are so often cited as dividing Republicans and Democrats?  Balz and Cohen assert: “Divisions over religious and social issues are equally stark.”  Perhaps they are, but an equally important question is whether that division really matters to the outcome of the 2012 election. That is, how deeply rooted is the division on moral values?  In this regard, perhaps the most revealing data in the entire survey comes in response to question 3, which asks: “Other than the economy and jobs what will be the most important issue in your choice for president?”  In responding to this open-ended question, only 3% cite “morals/family values” and only 2% cite “social issues”.  Only 1% mention “abortion”, “gun control” or “gay marriage.”  Rather than so-called “values”, the most cited non-economic issue is “health care/Obamacare”, at 14%.  Fully 17% cite no non-economic issue at all.  When given the choice to identify which issues really matter, very few Americans care about the moral values that so many pundits cite as dividing Republicans and Democrats.

It is an article of faith among pundits and journalists that Americans are deeply divided along party lines.  To be sure, when it comes to politics, Republicans and Democrats are not “tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum”.  Instead they come down differently on host of issues.  But neither are they so deeply divided as to make compromise on these issues impossible.  And in this election cycle, the issues that matter are almost exclusively economic in nature; voters simply are not interested in debating so-called “moral values”.  And on these important matters, such as the role of government in the economy, surveys that purport to show deepening partisan polarization are instead, in my view, showing party sorting against the backdrop of polarized choices. In short, contrary to what Balz and Cohen write, there is little evidence that Americans have become more deeply polarized along partisan lines during the last 14 years.


  1. Do you not agree that undecided voters this are particularly low for this early in the election cycle? If this is true, it seems like evidence of increased polarization.

  2. Richard,

    I think the evidence I’ve seen is that the number of undecideds is lower at this time than in previous campaigns. But again, this may say more about the nature of the candidates than it does about the electorate. Trying to decide between Ford and Carter, or Dukakis and Bush, is harder, I submit, than choosing between Romney and Obama. In other words, consistent with my earlier posts, the choices are perceived to be more polarized this time around, hence the relatively fewer undecideds. But this doesn’t mean the voting public is more polarized.

  3. Matt,
    I remember when Carter was President and we were told the Presidency was too big for one man. It strikes me that the idea our problems can not be overcome is part of the same song.
    They can’t be overcome until they are. It may take a crisis or some kind of awakening, but I suspect there are answers.
    Today’s issues always seem permanent and always change

  4. Hi Matthew,
    While you present compelling evidence that party affiliation among American voters has not changed much over time, and that America is not as polarized as news media have you believe, there are forces at work that make a polarized public a more desirable conclusion than what the polls actually do show: a populous more interested in compromise. The forces of polarization originate from partisan, self-serving political debates in Congress and a media more interested in selling its stories than ensuring their accuracy. On this point, you may find the article at the iPolitics site (see link below) equally compelling.
    Oleh Iwanyshyn

  5. Oleh,

    I read your very interesting post and largely agree with it, with one small caveat. It is, as you say, a more newsworthy story to say that the public is deeply divided, and as I think I demonstrated in my last post, the media largely plays up those aspects of a poll that suggest growing partisan polarization, while ignoring countervailing poll results that indicate, for example, that the public is becoming more tolerant of opposing views. The one small caveat is that while we tend to generalize about “the media”, there are occasional exceptions to this general tendency on the part of most journalists to promote the perception of a polarized public. I would want to tar everyone in the business with the same brush.

  6. Dale,

    I agree. We seem to stumble from one near crisis to the next, but we keep on stumbling forward all the same. That doesn’t mean the next crisis won’t knock us for a fall, however. As I tell my students, our political system is an ongoing experiment with no guarantee of a positive outcome. It takes effort and leadership to get it right.

  7. Matthew

    Just to clarify, I don’t mean to tar all journalists with my critique. My concern is opinion leaders like the Washington Post, New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. These organizations not only report on opinion polls, they also sponsor them. Journalists in these organizations can easily find themselves in a conflict of interest, torn between questioning the accuracy or validity of their own polls, and writing stories that are guaranteed to attract a large readership. The impact of these polls in society is also greatly enhanced by their cosponsorship with TV outlets like CBS News, ABC News, and NBC News. Together, these opinion leaders wield inordinate power to influence public opinion in addition to simply disseminating poll findings. The evidence from across the full spectrum of public opinion polling strongly suggests however that in the area of interpreting public opinion polls, they have not done a very good job.

  8. As a Independent I can tell you why we don’t vote party lines . Because both parties are controlled by liberals the Democrat Party is left wing liberals the GOP moderate liberals with only a few conservatives ever running . I would love to see a true anti liberal party formed .

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