Dan Balz and Jon Cohen began their series on a study of the two major political parties in the US now -- in August 2012 -- as we near a presidential election. "The study, conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, underscores that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whoever wins the White House in November."
The study finds that the differences between the two parties are not the only fractures in the system. The parties are also fractured internally: Democrats with four distinct groups and Republicans with five.
Here they are:
Five types of Republicans
What does it mean to be a Republican in 2012? Republicans are conservative, opposed to big government, overwhelmingly white and spread through all regions, although with a heavy concentration in the South. At least that’s the case on the surface.
Fault lines lie beneath, revealed in primary election battles between tea party conservatives and more establishment politicians and tensions that pit economic conservatives against religious and social conservatives.
The Post-Kaiser analysis reveals five distinct types of Republicans. Four are familiar elements of the GOP coalition: “Tea Party Movement Republicans,” “Old-School Republicans,” “Religious Values Voters” and “Pro-Government Republicans.” The fifth, a group we label “Window Shoppers,” are self-identified Republicans who in many respects seem out of place in an increasingly conservative party.
There are demographic differences among the groups. The party is about evenly split between men and women, but women make up a solid majority of Values Voters, while men make up about six in 10 Old-School Republicans.
Republican identifiers are overwhelmingly white, but two groups — Pro-Government conservatives and Window Shoppers — include significant numbers of nonwhites. Window Shoppers, the category that is least likely to agree with other groups within the party on many issues, are by far the youngest group: four in 10 are under age 30.
Old-School Republicans generally have higher incomes and more formal education. More than two-thirds of those in the Pro-Government group have annual household incomes of less than $50,000 and do not have college degrees.
Big majorities of the Pro-Government, Tea Party Movement and Values Voters groups attend religious services weekly; few Window Shoppers and Old-School Republicans go to church that regularly. There also are stark differences when it comes to attitudes about the role religion should play in public life.
Underlying demographic and behavioral differences lead to conflicting attitudes and values on many issues. Pro-Government and Old-School Republicans are less inclined to say GOP leaders are taking the party in the right direction, while the Tea Party Movement and Values Voters groups are much more satisfied.
Most Republican groups favor confrontation over cooperation and compromise, but Old-School Republicans and Window Shopper tend to favor negotiation with the Democrats.
Almost all Tea Party Movement and Old-School Republicans say people should take care of themselves and not look to government for help, a sentiment that drops sharply among Pro-Government conservatives.
On Medicare, an issue central to the presidential campaign, the Republican coalition is divided. The survey asked everyone whether they preferred changing Medicare to a premium-support program for younger workers, in which people would have the option to purchase their own health-care plans after retiring, an idea Ryan has outlined and Romney has embraced. Or, they were asked, would they prefer to keep the government health program largely as it is?
Tea Party Movement Republicans were the only one of the five GOP groups in which a majority favored the premium-support approach advocated by Ryan. About four in 10 Old-School Republicans said they supported such a change. But more than 60 percent of those in each of the other groups said they opposed the idea.
Old-School Republicans, who once were called country-club Republicans, tend to be out of step with others in the party on a variety of social issues: A slim majority say same-sex marriages should be legal, and more than a third say people’s values should adapt to changing times and cultures. These Republicans, along with the Window Shoppers, score no higher on a scale of “moral relativism” than do two of the major Democratic groups.
The GOP is now a collection of shifting internal coalitions. For the next three months, they will join together in a united effort to defeat Obama, capture the Senate and enlarge their majority in the House. But if Romney is in the White House come January, he will be faced with harnessing a party that in a variety of ways will be pulling in different directions, substantively and stylistically.
Four types of Democrats
Obama’s election-year announcements on gay marriage and a naturalization policy for undocumented immigrants seemed to play to a Democratic base, one that is largely supportive of his moves. Democrats certainly differ from Republicans on the issues, at least broadly.
But Democrats too are divided — particularly on gay marriage.
Fully 85 percent of those we call “Urban Liberals” — one of the biggest of the Democratic groups — say they feel strongly that gay marriage should be legal, but that drops to 26 percent among “God and Government” Democrats, the largest group, and just 13 percent among the smallest cadre, the do-it-yourself, or “DIY,” Democrats.
Religion, social issues and the size and scope of government are the main pivots dividing the Democratic coalition, but demographic differences also contribute to the fissures.
Urban Liberals — the most traditionally liberal of the groups — are nearly three-quarters white and by far the most educated and highest income earners among Democrats. The God and Government contingent is two-thirds nonwhite and far more apt than two of the five Republican groups to go to religious services at least once a week.
Urban Liberals and the “Agnostic Left,” another group of people who seldom go to church, overwhelmingly say there should be a high degree of separation between church and state, while sizable majorities of the other two groups of Democrats say the government should take special steps to protect America’s religious heritage.
About a third of DIY Democrats advocate a larger federal government offering more in services, a position backed by most of those in other groups, peaking at 85 percent among Urban Liberals. DIY Democrats are by far the least likely of any of the four groups to support new spending at the cost of deficit reduction. But they also represent only about one in eight Democrats — only about a third of the size of the God and Government group.
The Agnostic Left, about two-thirds of whose members are under 50 years old, nearly matches the DIY group in its overall espousal of economic individualism but differs sharply when it comes to issues around religion’s role in public life.
Obama has been able to stitch together a unique coalition, still reliant on a nonwhite base but reaching into some segments of voters previously resistant to Democratic presidential candidates. But the near uniformity in Democrats’ intentions to support his bid for reelection belies deep disagreements that are likely to color the remainder of his presidency, whether he has five months or another four years in office.