The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a fascinating study about the increase in partisan polarization from the late 1980s up to today.
Among their findings was that since the George W. Bush administration, the gap between what Democrats and Republicans hold as values is the widest the survey has seen in the past 25 years.
In one of the many interesting survey results, Pew finds that the number of self-identified “independents” is at an all-time high, with 38 percent of respondents identifying as independents, while 32 percent of respondents say they are Democrats and 24 percent saying they are Republicans.
But if you ask those “independents” if they lean to one party over another, you get a closely divided national electorate, with only 12 percent saying they are truly independent of either major political party.
So what should we take from this? Well, one could argue that, nationally, the United States is a coalition country. If you seek national office, you have to build a two-part strategy: solidify your political base and attract sufficient numbers of independents to your side.
The other way of looking at these trends is that, with the exception of a little more than 10 percent of the electorate, there is no true “independent” component to our electorate. When push comes to shove, the independents march right into one of the two major parties.
One other key finding is that the national electorate’s ideological composition has remained steady. As the GOP has gotten smaller, it has become more conservative, while the influence of liberals within the Democratic Party has become more pronounced as well.
So, in comparison, how does North Carolina fare? Unfortunately, we don’t have substantial statewide public opinion data like Pew’s to use, but we do have “snap-shots” in time with the state’s exit polls from the general elections.
In looking at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 exit polls, we do find that the number of partisans and “independents” are fairly divided. Self-identified Democrats make up a plurality of the state’s electorate (about 40 percent), while in the most recent presidential election, independents rose to 27.5 percent of the electorate, with Republicans making up 31 percent.
Before that, GOP identifiers were more closely matched to Democrats, and I suspect (unless 2012 is a repeat of Obama’s massive grassroots mobilization campaign of 2008) that we could see parity back between the two parties come November.
Among those who identify as Democrats over the past three presidential elections, the percentage of liberals within the party has distinctly risen, while the number of conservative Democrats has shrunk.
Again, 2008 may be an anomaly of Obama’s mobilization effect, especially in the drop-off in conservative Democrats.
Among independents, we see almost the exact reverse from the Democrats. There’s a significant drop in liberal independents and a corresponding increase in conservative independents.
Two things may account for this. One, liberal independents may have switched their party identification to Democratic due to Obama’s efforts, and the increased conservative independents may have come from the GOP due to the disgust of the Bush administration in its waning days in office.
What sets North Carolina Republicans apart from the other two groups is the sheer size of a dominate conservative faction within the Republican party.
With liberal Republicans on the EPA’s endangered species list and moderate Republicans on life-support, the GOP is dominated at nearly 70 percent with self-identified conservatives.
Now that we know the ideological composition of the various electoral groups within the state, can we see any signs of the “polarization” effect?
Consider going from the extreme of “liberal Democrats” in North Carolina — who cast 97 percent of their ballots for Obama — to the opposite end of the ideological-party spectrum with “conservative Republicans” who cast 95 percent of their votes for McCain, and you get a possible sense of the polarization within the state.
But more interesting to me is the fact that only “moderate independents”—those middle-of-the-middle folks—split their ballots nearly in half, 50.6 percent for Obama to 47.2 percent for McCain.
Every other ideological component of the two parties—and independents—went at least 80% (rounding up) for one presidential candidate over the other.
Is North Carolina a polarized state? Based on these graphs, it appears to be — and thus perhaps the reason why we have seen very little movement between Obama and Romney in public opinion polls in recent weeks.
Both campaigns are gearing up for a battle this fall, and it appears, that in North Carolina at least, the war may be among the die-hard committed partisans.