Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views

By Ronald Brownstein

Who are America's partisans? A new Gallup poll breaks down political demographics as the 2012 election approaches.

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Call it the homogeneity gap.


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New data out today from Gallup show that Democrats remain much more of a coalition party than the GOP - with all the opportunities and challenges that implies.

Gallup released figures today analyzing the demographic characteristics of adults who identified as Democrats or leaned toward the party in nightly tracking interviews conducted from June to August 2011. This new release represents the bookend to a study Gallup conducted with National Journal on the demographic characteristics of the Republican coalition over that same period.

Comparing the profile of each party's coalition points toward two interrelated conclusions. One is that on many dimensions the parties now represent inverse visions of America. The other is that, on key variables, Democrats are more closely divided and diverse than the GOP.

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The two coalitions approach the 2012 election at almost even strength: Gallup says that in its interviews over those three months, 43 percent of adults identified with, or leaned toward, the Democratic Party, while 40 percent tilted toward Republicans; the pollsters characterize the remaining 15 percent as pure independents.

The differences between the two coalitions start with gender. According to Gallup, Republicans split between 52.5 percent male and 47.5 percent female; Democrats are 55 percent female and just 45 percent male. Democrats are slightly younger and more concentrated in the East (24 percent of Democrats live there, compared to 19 percent of Republicans) while Republicans tilt toward Dixie (Southerners represent 36 percent of Republicans compared to 31 percent of Democrats.)

Democrats are still slightly more downscale than Republicans: 72 percent of Democrats report earning ess than $90,000 annually compared to 66 percent of Republicans. But the evolving class nature of the two parties' coalitions is evident in their convergence on another measure: the share of Democrats and Republicans with and without college degrees is now almost exactly the same.

The bigger differences between the parties come on four other dimensions. The first is race. The GOP remains a preponderantly white party: nearly 87 percent of Republicans are white. Just 63 percent of self-identified Democrats are white. African-Americans and Hispanic combine to provide 33 percent of the Democratic coalition, but just 10 percent of the Republican base.

The second key difference is religious affiliation and practice. Republicans are considerably more likely than Democrats to describe religion as important in their lives (73 percent of Republicans do so, compared to 59 percent of Democrats), and to attend church regularly (40 percent of Republicans say they attend at least weekly, compared to only 27 percent of Democrats.) The GOP is also more heavily tilted toward Protestants: three-fifths of Republicans identify with that faith, compared to only 48 percent of Democrats. (The data Gallup released doesn't differentiate between Mainline and evangelical Protestants, but other studies show the GOP evolving increasingly toward the latter over recent decades.) Strikingly, almost one-in-five Democrats now identify with no religious faith, compared with less than one-in-ten Republicans.

The third sharp difference is marital status: 62 percent of Republicans are married while 54 percent of Democrats are single.

Finally, the parties are sharply divided by ideology. Continuing a generation-long process that I've described as "the great sorting out," each party is more ideologically consistent than it once was - but the process is far more pronounced among Republicans. Fully 68 percent of Republicans identify as conservatives compared to 26 percent as moderates and only 6 percent as liberals. Among Democrats, 37 percent consider themselves liberals, while 42 percent identify as moderates and 20 percent as conservatives.

These differences underscore not only the distance between the parties, but their contrasting internal profiles. Across these key measures, Republicans coalesce much more dramatically than Democrats: whites, Protestants, married people, those who consider religion a priority, and conservatives all constitute a larger proportion of the Republican coalition than their opposites do inside the Democratic coalition. In all those different ways the GOP coalition is more homogenous and unified; the share of Republicans who consider themselves conservatives is much larger, for instance, than the share of Democrats who identify as liberals. These data make clear that Republicans have a central archetype: married whites who consider themselves conservative and view religion as important in their lives. No single group is nearly as dominant among Democrats. (Not even single, secular, liberal minorities.)

The GOP coalition's internal consistency provides the party one big advantage: one reason why the party often finds it easier to maintain party unity in Congress is because its elected officials all across the country must answer to a more similar set of voters than Democrats, whose constituencies vary more widely (and who usually must also attract more moderates to win).

The big disadvantage for the GOP is that in its racial homogeneity its coalition is on the wrong side of demographic history: over 36 percent of all Americans are now non-white and that figure rises to nearly 47 percent among Americans younger than 18. Republicans have weathered that change by winning preponderant shares of the white vote-their 60 percent showing among whites in 2010 was their highest ever for a Congressional election in the history of modern polling. But if Republicans can't improve their performance with minorities, they will soon need to regularly win that high a percentage of whites to capture presidential elections, and that is a much more daunting prospect.

Image credit: Larry Downing/Reuters

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/11/democrats-republicans-have-mirror-image-views/248100/