If you just went by traditional media descriptions of the political battlefield, you’d think that most of the nation has coalesced into two unified and monolithic camps, indelibly red and blue, fighting over a small pool of swing voters to try to get to 50%+1. However, you’ve probably noticed firsthand that the Democratic Party is a “big tent” with a lot of conflicting elements. That’s clear not just from the comments here, where there’s often plenty of, um, robust disagreement, but also when you consider that there are many other parts of the Democratic coalition who may have even greater differences of opinion and who aren’t posting here.
Of course, we’re not alone in our fractiousness; the Republican Party has its own traditional rift between more fiscally oriented country-club Republicans and more red-meat-minded social conservatives, a rift that’s gotten scrambled by the rise of the ostensibly-financially-minded yet even fringier Tea Partiers. There’s also the question of independents, who get depicted in the media either, flatteringly, as sensible, vote-for-the-candidate-not-the-party moderates, or, unflatteringly, as ill-informed, easily manipulated ninnies who make snap decisions based on personality and their sense of their own pocketbook… but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the diversity of the center.
A very extensive new poll released this week by the Pew Research Center looks deeper into these questions, and tries to categorize voters according to where they might fit within the larger coalitions. Pew breaks respondents down into nine different categories, each representing between 9% and 14% of the general public. Two are reliably Republican (Staunch Conservatives and Main Street Republicans), and three are reliably Democratic (Solid Liberals, Hard-Pressed Democrats, and New Coalition Democrats). Three are “mostly independent,” although Libertarians and Disaffecteds tend to lean right and Post-Moderns tend to lean left. Finally, there’s the category of Bystanders, who are the disengaged party of non-voters. (If you’re wondering where you fit in the scheme, you can take Pew’s typology test, although chances are pretty good that, if you’re reading this at Daily Kos, you’re already one of the 14% of the nation who’s a Solid Liberal.)
Solid Liberals are largely white, and are also the best educated and one of the most affluent of all the typologies. While Solid Liberals have much in common with the other two Democratic groups, such as preferences for a diplomatic rather than aggressive foreign policy and a government that works to aid the poor, there are also key differences, stemming from Hard-Pressed Democrats and New Coalition Democrats being more religious and socially conservative. For instance, while 92% of Solid Liberals say that "Homosexuality should be accepted by society," only 49% of Hard-Pressed Democrats do and 43% of New Coalition Democrats do.
The differences between Hard-Pressed Democrats and New Coalition Democrats are a mix of race and age. Hard-Pressed Democrats skew older, and are a mix of whites and African-Americans. New Coalition Democrats are younger, and have a large Latino component. New Coalition Democrats seem more optimistic about institutions (not just government but business as well; only 38% of New Coalition Democrats say, "Business corporations make too much profit" as opposed to 79% of Hard-Pressed Democrats). Hard-Pressed Democrats take a much dimmer view of immigration (only 13% of them say, "Immigrants today strengthen our country," compared with 70% of New Coalition Democrats).
Pew has been doing Typologies for several decades, and this is their first revision since 2005. One of the most interesting changes is that they’ve retired their old "Conservative Democrats" typology and replaced it with "New Coalition Democrats," a sign of the changing face of the Democratic Party, one that’s younger, more urban, and more diverse. The old "Conservative Democrats"–predominantly older, rural New Dealers who are otherwise conservative–have become a smaller and smaller part of the coalition, as they’ve finally begun voting Republican or simply died; their dwindling is a large part of the fast red shift that’s occurred in the last decade along the Appalachian arc, from SW Pennsylvania and West Virginia to Arkansas and Tennessee. The remnants of this category seems to now be lumped in with the "Hard-Pressed Democrats."
The Disaffecteds–the least educated typology that’s majority-white–may come the closest to the unfortunate stereotype of the "independent" as incoherently angry, with their conflicting disdain for government and demand for more government aid. 73% of Disaffecteds agree that "Government is almost always wasteful and inefficient," but 61% of Disaffecteds also say that "Government should do help need even if there’s more debt" (compared with only 10% of Libertarians and 27% of Post-Moderns).
The Post-Moderns are one of the most interesting groups; they tend to be younger and more diverse than the Libertarians or Disaffecteds, and accordingly, they tend to lean Democratic. These are voters who think of themselves as financially conservative (only 27% say the government should do more to help the needy) but socially very liberal (91% of them say that "homosexuality should be accepted by society," a number on par with Solid Liberals) and also very tolerant of government’s regulatory role (91% say, "the government should do whatever it takes to protect the environment").
The Post-Moderns, unfortunately, are also the members of the Obama coalition that fell off the most from 2008 to 2010. In 2008, 65% of them voted for Obama, while 13% voted for McCain. In 2010, 17% voted for the Republican candidate, while 43% voted for the Democrat. That’s nearly a 20% gap in terms of those who didn’t vote! Contrast that with the Disaffecteds, who actively changed their minds. In 2008, the Disaffecteds broke 41% for McCain and 25% for Obama. In 2010, 50% voted for the Republican candidate, while only 12% voted for the Democrat. That’s only 6% who dropped out; the rest of the difference was switchers.
Similarly, further toward the poles, the Libertarians were characterized by switchers (53 to 14 for McCain in 2008, 63 to 9 for the Republican candidate in 2010), while the New Coalition Democrats, like the young and diverse Post-Moderns, also failed to show up (67 to 7 for Obama in 2008, 50 to 13 for the Democratic candidate in 2010). Contrast that with the actual poles, the Staunch Conservatives and Solid Liberals, whose numbers changed very little from 2008 to 2010. Add up the switchers and the droppers in all the middle categories, and you’ve got the mathematical explanation for what happened last November.
Finally, the Republican coalition is limited to two groups: the Staunch Conservatives and the Main Street Republicans. Pew points out that this is something of a realignment from previous decades; in 2005, there were three different GOP groups: the Enterprisers, the Social Conservatives, and the Pro-Government Conservatives. In the time since then, though, most of the once-populist Social Conservatives seem to have accepted the Enterprisers’ nostrums about the economy and are now just as devoted to free market ideology. This merger seems to give rise to the newly unified "Staunch Conservatives." The Main Street Republicans aren’t really that different, but are at least a little less deferential to big business: 58% of them say, "Business corporations make too much profit," compared with only 13% of Staunch Conservatives agreeing.
Pew’s description of the Staunch Conservatives, though, is "Highly engaged Tea Party supporters." That’s probably true at this point, but I’m wondering if that doesn’t quite do justice to the rise of the teabaggers. While there’s always been some meddling from GOP elites in its creation (with Rick Santelli’s famous CNBC rant as its defining moment), the initial Tea Party seemed to be an odd coalition of the Libertarians and the Disaffecteds, the GOP-leaning independents, rather than something that came from within the Republican coalition. That would tend to explain its incoherence and odd grab bag of action items at first–a mix of cold-blooded Randism/Paulism and inchoate populist anger.
Once Beltway astoturfers saw that there actually was something going on there and started pouring in resources, it seems like only then the Staunch Conservatives started piling onboard, adding more anger to fuel it as an electoral force but, from a policy standpoint, broadening it to the point where there wasn’t anything left to distinguish it from the movement conservative agenda as a whole, just with cool new branding. But the roots of that independent/Republican division in its birth still seems to linger on below-the-surface in leadership struggles within the Tea Party movement, such as the weird internecine spats between the astroturf-flavored Tea Party Express and the fringier Tea Party Patriots.
There’s a remarkable amount of detailed data in Pew’s report, and I encourage anyone interested in demographics, political trendspotting, or just making sense of who the hell we are as a country, to read the whole report. What other observations strike you as interesting? What changes to the categories (or alternate categories altogether) might you suggest? And, of course, don’t hesitate to share how you scored on the Typology Quiz yourself.