Divisions within U.S. Political Parties

On October 24, 2017 the Pew Research Center reported results of surveys of more than 5,000 United States adults conducted over the summer of 2017. The report revealed that “even in a political landscape increasingly fractured by partisanship, the  divisions within the Republican and Democratic coalitions may be as important a factor in American politics as the  divisions between them.”  The results follow up on, and are consistent with, past blog posts on Fifty Year Perspective. (See June 18, 2017  and October 22, 2017 .)

The Pew report divides the public into eight politically oriented groups, four Republican-leaning and four Democratic- Republicans. The “Solid Liberals,” the most Democratic-leaning group, make up 48% of politically engaged Democrats. Pew identifies three other Republican-leaning groups as “Country First Conservatives,” “Market Skeptic Republicans” and “New Era Enterprisers.” In addition to “Solid Liberals,” Democratic-leaning groups in the survey include “Opportunity Democrats,” Disaffected Democrats” and “Devout and Diverse Democrats.”

Within the two parties there exist a variety of positions held by people who do not necessarily abide by the strictures of identity politics. Somewhat independent, they may share some views with the extreme members while harboring other positions that are abhorrent to those at the extremes. For example, a 94% majority of “Market Skeptic Republicans” say the economic system unfairly favors powerful interests, a view held by 99% of “Solid Liberals” but only 21% of “Core Conservatives.”  Even “Core Conservatives” do not buy in to the full Republican agenda; only 43% believe that immigrants burden the U.S. by taking jobs and housing.

Among Democrats, “Solid Liberals” strongly favored government taking responsibility for assuring all citizens have health insurance (97%), and for making changes that bring equality for blacks (98%). For “Opportunity Democrats” the comparable figures were 78% and 67%. Of “Disaffected Democrats,” 63% believe the U.S. should reduce global involvement, a view shared by 66% of “Country First Conservatives” and 72% of “Market Skeptic Republicans,” but only 10% of “Solid Liberals.”

This is the seventh time the Pew Research Center has conducted this survey; the first survey was in 1994. Pew finds that the disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on political values are higher than any previous survey. Yet, as noted above, divisions within parties may be as important as divisions between them. And as noted above, there are positions on which Republican-leaning persons may be closer to Democratic-leaning persons than to other Republicans.

Will voters still identify with their parties even though they do not support party positions? What happens to people not at the extremes, who might still be brave enough to call themselves moderates?  And most intriguingly, are there enough voters so uncomfortable with either party to form a critical mass in support of a third party?

U.S. politics has been dominated by two major parties for nearly its entire history. No third party candidate has won a presidential election, and only once has a third party presidential candidate come in second in an election. In 1912 Theodore Roosevelt, the Progressive Party candidate, beat the Republican Party candidate, William Taft, but lost to the Democratic Party candidate, Woodrow Wilson. The las third party to become mainstream was the Republican Party, formed in 1854, losing in the 1856 presidential election, then winning in 1860.

In the last 100 years only five third party candidates have received more than 5% of the votes cast. However, even when third party candidates do not win, they can change the outcome of the elections by drawing votes mostly from one of the other candidates.

In 1968 George Wallace ran as the American Independent Party candidate after being rejected by the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon, the Republican Party candidate, beat the Democratic Party candidate, Hubert Humphrey by only half a million votes, while Wallace received almost ten million votes of the 73 million votes cast. Without Wallace, Humphrey would have won the presidency. In 1992 Ross Perot captured enough potential Republican votes to cause George H.W. Bush to lose to Bill Clinton.

Every day news stories confirm the findings of escalating divisiveness within as well as between the major political parties. A recent article at Newsweek.com had one academic suggesting that a Republican-centrist third party may soon emerge. There is some common ground among those voters between Pew’s “Core Conservatives” and “Solid Liberals.” What might those middle-grounders agree to if they left their labels at the door?

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