The reality is much more complex, according to a study released today by the Washington-based Pew Research Center that outlines eight distinct types of Americans when it comes to politics, with most located in the middle of the spectrum.
“Partisan polarization — the vast and growing gap between Republicans and Democrats — is a defining feature of politics today,” the report says. “Yet while the ideological wings garner most of the attention, they make up a minority of the public. The center is large but diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else.”
Using a survey of more than 10,000 adults done from Jan. 23 through March 16, Pew sorted Americans into groups based on attitudes and values, a process sometimes called cluster analysis. Pew has periodically done similar “political typology” studies of the American electorate for the past 27 years.
Those near the middle comprise 57 percent of registered voters, the study found. Those centrists are also less partisan and less predictable, offering challenges for both Republicans and Democrats as they compete in the 2014 midterm congressional elections and the 2016 presidential campaign.
“The middle is a collection of groups that really don’t have a lot in common,” Carroll Doherty, Pew’s director of political research, said in an interview. “The one thing they do have in common is a relatively low level of political engagement.”
On the Republican side, the study defined “Steadfast Conservatives” as staunch critics of government and the social safety net who are “very socially conservative.”
They’re closely related to “Business Conservatives,” who also prefer limited government while supporting Wall Street and business and immigration reform. These business-oriented voters are “far more moderate on social issues than are Steadfast Conservatives,” the study says.
On the other end of the spectrum are “Solid Liberals,” who “express liberal attitudes across almost every realm — government, the economy and business, foreign policy, as well as on race, homosexuality and abortion — and are reliable and loyal Democratic voters.”
Those three most extreme groups of voters form the electoral base of both parties and their influence on U.S. politics is strong, the study says.
“While Solid Liberals, Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives collectively make up only 36 percent of the American public, they represent 43 percent of registered voters and fully 57 percent of the more politically engaged,” the report says.
The other groups are less partisan, less predictable and have little in common with each other or the groups at either end of the spectrum.
A group representing about 15 percent of registered voters that Pew calls “Young Outsiders” leans Republican, although they don’t have a strong allegiance. From support for environmental regulation to “liberal views on social issues,” they break from Republican orthodoxy, even while still firm in support for limited government.
The “Hard-Pressed Skeptics,” who represent 13 percent of registered voters, have been battered by the economy and their financial situation has left them resentful of both government and business. Most in this group say they voted for President Barack Obama in 2012, though fewer than half now approve of his job performance.
The “Next Generation Left,” who account for 13 percent of registered voters, are young, relatively affluent and very liberal on social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion. They have reservations about the cost of social programs and while most support affirmative action, they reject the idea that racial discrimination is the main reason some blacks are unable to get ahead.
The “Faith and Family Left,” who represent 16 percent of registered voters, lean Democratic and has confidence in government and federal programs to address the nation’s problems. Demographically diverse, the group is uncomfortable with the pace of change, including the acceptance of homosexuality and non-traditional family structures.
Finally, the “Bystanders” represent 10 percent of the public, are not registered to vote and pay very little attention to politics.
Ahead of the midterm election, the Hard-Pressed Skeptics — who say they supported Obama over Republican Mitt Romney by a 65 percent to 25 percent margin — are more closely divided, with 51 percent planning to vote for the Democrat in their congressional district and 37 percent picking the Republican.
The Young Outsiders also intend to vote Republican this fall by a somewhat larger margin than they did in 2012.
“These groups also are less certain to turn out this fall compared with the more partisan bases,” the study notes.