Every five years, the Pew Research Center publishes a survey-based political typology, which uses attitudinal scales and cluster analysis to locate relatively homogeneous groups within the American electorate. This year’s survey found eight such groups—three at the core of the Democratic coalition (New Coalition Democrats, Hard-Pressed Democrats, and Solid Liberals), two Republican (Staunch Conservatives and Main Street Republicans), and the remaining three independent (Libertarians, Disaffecteds, and Post-Moderns). This form of analysis makes it possible to define areas of tension within each party’s coalition, as well as unexpected convergences across party lines. The results yield a number of surprising discoveries about the upcoming political opportunities—and liabilities—that lie in store for both parties.
The opportunity for compromise is greater than you think. One issue that enjoys a surprising degree of bipartisan support for reform is immigration. 72 percent of respondents favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, with only 24 percent opposed. Conversely, respondents favor tougher enforcement of immigration laws and our border by a margin of 78 to 19. In other words, there’s a super-majority for comprehensive immigration reform waiting to be mobilized. Now look at the breakdown by group. Majorities in seven of the eight—including one of the core Republican groups—favor a path to citizenship. Even the “Staunch Conservatives” are split down the middle, 49/49. And every group—even the “Solid Liberals”—favors stronger enforcement. President Obama and his team will be guilty of political malpractice if they don’t push hard for action, and Republicans will pay a price if they go all-out to block it.
The same kind of consensus exists when it comes to reducing the federal budget deficit. All the Democratic groups say that reducing it will involve a combination of spending cuts and tax increases; no surprise there. But 59 percent of “Main Street Republicans” agree. Even libertarians split evenly on this question. Staunch Conservatives are the only group favoring a spending-cuts only approach, a stance endorsed by only 20 percent of the overall electorate. Paul Ryan and the House Republicans are stunningly out of touch with mainstream public opinion on this issue, and it’s hard to believe that Republicans won’t pay a political price unless they trim their sails.
The Democrats’ coalition is remarkably shaky. Political observers have long noted that the Democratic core is less homogeneous than the Republican one, and the Pew survey adds precision to this impression. For example, while both core Republican groups self-identify as conservative, liberals dominate only one of the three groups that make up the Democratic coalition. In the other two, moderates form a plurality, and conservatives outnumber liberals.
These divisions among Democrats become evident when it comes to questions about the role of government. While the issue unites the Republican core, 68 percent of “Hard-Pressed Democrats,” a predominantly blue-collar group, say that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient; 74 percent of Solid Liberals, a much more educated and upscale group, disagree. Fully 40 percent of Hard-Pressed Dems favor a smaller government, versus less than 20 percent for the other two Democratic groups. Not surprisingly, fully half of Hard-Pressed Democrats say that reducing the budget deficit is a top priority for this year, versus only 32 percent for Solid Liberals. And blue-collar Democrats are much more sensitive to rising prices than is any other group in the electorate, suggesting that the continuation of high gas prices into the 2012 presidential election season could reduce their enthusiasm for the incumbent.
Obama needs to rebuild support among a key group of independents. It’s likely that independents will play an outsize role in determining both parties’ prospects in 2012. Of the three independent groups, the most intriguing is the one the Pew researchers call the “Post-Moderns.” It is the only group in which self-described moderates form an outright majority. Its members tend to be young, white, well-educated, and upscale. They are liberal on cultural issues, immigration, the environment, and foreign policy. At the same time, they are pro-business and pro-Wall Street, and they are skeptical of expansive programs aimed at helping minorities and the poor. 61 percent of Solid Liberals believe that “racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead”; 79 percent of Post-Moderns disagree. For them, post-racial America is a fact, not an aspiration, and they supported Barack Obama in 2008 in part as symbol and proof of that fact.
Of all the groups, Post-Moderns are the most likely to trust government and the least likely to be angry with it, and half of them believe that government often performs better than people give it credit for. But these affirmative attitudes don’t translate into support for a more expansive public sector. Only 35 percent of Post-Moderns favor a bigger government providing more services, for instance, while 55 percent opt for a smaller government offering fewer services. Not surprisingly, this group responded especially negatively to the government activism of the 111th Congress. It gave Obama an astounding 52-point margin over McCain; two years later, this margin was cut in half, the largest fall-off in Democratic support registered by any group.
Taken as a whole, the Pew survey suggests that each political party faces a challenge next year. If hard-core conservatives dominate the Republican presidential nominating process, the eventual candidate may be forced to endorse positions on important issues that a majority of the electorate rejects. On the other hand, unless Obama can alter some of the impressions that independents and even some Democrats have formed during his first two years, his support may well be less broad-based and enthusiastic than it was in 2008. If both parties meet their respective challenges, 2012 could witness a productive debate on basic issues. If neither does, the election is likely to be shrill, negative, and thoroughly dispiriting.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.
Follow @tnr on Twitter.