Defining What Makes a Democrat, Republican Stirs a Debate

In early October, Morley Winograd and Michael Hais, coauthors of "Millennial Momentum: How a New Generation Is Remaking America" wrote an op-ed article discussing the recent results of a survey conducted by Magid Associates exploring the demographic breakdown of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Their analysis found a growing demographic rift between the two parties, namely that more women, minorities, and young voters were leaning left, while older white men tended to lean right.

Winograd and Hais also found several distinct differences between Democrats and Republicans and how they view the government's role in domestic affairs, foreign policy, and the economy.

This conclusion led to a rebuttal by Trey Ditto, a communications consultant and former deputy communications director for the Republican Party of Texas.

Ditto criticized the survey's use of "extreme language" to inaccurately define what Republicans truly believe in.

"Your average undecided voter would be surprised to hear that Republicans believe in defining who the truly neediest are, i.e. below the poverty line, and establishing support for them — ideally temporarily — to allow them to get through a hardship and to pick themselves back up. Contrary to what Democrats say, and what this survey leads us to believe, the compassionate conservative believes in helping those who truly need help," Ditto writes.

Winograd and Hais produced a rejoinder in response to Ditto's rebuttal, quoted below.

Trey Ditto is correct when he says that political polling, including the Magid survey he critiques, is not particularly effective in capturing the complexities and nuances of political philosophy or even the less subtle variations in belief of the respondents in most polls. But that is not the job of political survey research. Surveys are designed, instead to capture the location and direction of public attitudes, opinion, and behavior at a particular point in time.

The most productive way of doing this when gauging opinions about political issues on which there are clearly different viewpoints is to ask survey respondents questions that require them to choose between those viewpoints. That was done in the Magid survey. Moreover, the questions asked by Magid were based on and very similar or identical to standard items asked for decades by reputable and respected survey research organizations such as the University of Michigan Survey Research Center and the Pew Research Center.

In spite of Mr. Ditto's suggestion that they were slanted toward the Democrats, all of the Magid questions were clearly effective in drawing out the partisan attitudes of respondents. On each of the questions a majority of those who identify as or lean Democratic favor the "liberal" alternative, while a majority of respondents who identify as or lean Republican favor the "conservative" alternative.

Specifically, most Democrats favor an activist approach in society and the economy (70 percent), a foreign policy based on building alliances (57 percent), and a government that ensures that everyone has a basic standard of living and level of income (65 percent). By contrast, most Republicans favor an approach that keeps the government out of society and the economy to the greatest possible extent (53 percent), a foreign policy based on military strength (51 percent), and an approach that lets each person get by on their own economically as much as possible (59 percent).  Independents who indicated absolutely no preference for either party fell in between these partisan attitudes, further validating the survey's results.

The validity of the Magid questions can also be seen in the statistically significant variations that have coincided with recent changes in America's political environment. The questions were first asked in January 2009 when positive attitudes toward the newly inaugurated president and his policy approach were at their peak.

Since then, in a reflection of the rise of the Tea Party movement, the GOP recapture of the House in 2010, and a 2012 presidential election that is almost certain to be closer than that of 2008, the overall responses on all of the questions have moved in a more "conservative" direction. For example, the number who prefer that the government stay out of society and the economy as much as possible rose from 26 percent to 31 percent, while support for governmental activism has fallen from 58 percent to 53 percent. Support for a foreign policy approach based on military strength is up from 29 percent to 37 percent, while the number favoring an approach based on strong alliances is down from 55 percent to 47 percent. During this same period, support for letting each person get by on their own economically has gone from 30 percent to 34 percent, while the percentage that favor the government ensuring a basic standard of living and income has dropped from 53 percent to 49 percent.

Mr. Ditto concluded his critique with a plaintive statement that "when studies like [the Magid survey] come out it reminds [him] that Republicans are losing this messaging battle, which will have decade long consequences in terms of persuading the next generation of voters." We will leave it to others to decide which, if either, party is doing of more effective job of communicating its beliefs. But, we are confident that the Magid research provides an accurate depiction of American political attitudes at this time in history.

We want to hear where the readers fall on this debate. Leave your opinions in the comments below.