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This Is the Only Split in American Politics That Really Matters

REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Every two years the same conventional wisdom gets its time in the sun: Older, white men vote. Young, urban, minorities don’t—well, sometimes they do, but almost certainly not in midterm elections. And that’s why the Democratic Party is screwed in off years.

But in our new cover story, we dug deeper. Who are the different types of voters, really? What do they believe?

Partnering with Clarity Campaign Labs, The New Republic surveyed over three thousand voters to record not just self-described ideology but deeper attitudes about Obamacare, income inequality, marriage equality, the prospect of seeing another Clinton (or Bush) in the White House, and a host of other issues. Poll participants were then matched back to detailed voter files maintained by Clarity’s sister firm, TargetSmart Communications, which verified vote histories and provided detailed demographic data on each group.

The result was a portrait of the American electorate that doesn’t just confirm that people who cast ballots every two years (“Reflex” voters, we’ve dubbed them) tend to be older, and more conservative, but by how much. (Answer: 15 years, 17 percentage points.) Most significantly, our survey also revealed specific challenges for Democrats in their efforts to turn out sympathetic irregular voters (“Unreliables”) this November, a push focused on key Senate states.

Among Unreliables, President Barack Obama is underwater, with a 52 percent unfavorability rating; nearly 3 in 4 of those voters say the country is on the wrong track. And despite average partisanship scores that indicate they lean Democrat, more Unreliables actually said they’d vote for a Republican in 2014 (37 percent) than said they intended to vote for a Democrat (30 percent). That comes on top of the 52 percent of Reflex voters who said they plan to vote GOP. Across our sample, 81 percent of those favorable to the Tea Party are Reflex voters who vote every two years.

And even as top Democratic strategists focus on mobilization, a sizable bloc of Unreliables—32 percent—is undecided about which party it will back in the midterms.  

On Obamacare, Unreliables are more likely than Reflex voters to be supportive, but only by a slight margin (39 percent versus 34 percent), while 51 percent of Reflex strongly oppose it. But 18 percent percent of Reflex voters, and 10 percent of regular midterm voters who lean Republican, reported that they (or a family member or a loved one) has received health-care coverage through Obamacare, suggesting modest potential for Democrats to pick up votes from the other side thanks to the legislation.

Obama has been urging his party’s drop-off voters not to sit out these midterms, but our survey found evidence that some may already be looking ahead to 2016: Among all Unreliable voters, Hillary Clinton fares 10 points better than Obama, with a favorable rating of 53 percent. Clinton’s score made her the most popular prospective 2016 candidate among the Unreliable voters we polled. Intriguingly, she also finished in a statistical dead heat with Jeb Bush among Reflex voters. Chris Christie scored the lowest among both groups.

Our poll of Reflex and Unreliable voters, conducted by Clarity Campaign Labs, is based on 3,879 interactive voice-response interviews with voters and live surveys of cell-phone respondents conducted April 8-10, 2014. Survey participants were matched to voting histories in public records; the final samples were then adjusted to match the broader population. The data on demographic characteristics and past political behavior comes from databases maintained by TargetSmart or consumer databases to which it has access. (When data is unavailable for an individual voter, it’s generated through statistical modeling.) Additional analysis by Clarity’s Tom Bonier and TargetSmart’s Chris Brill.