The Pew Research Center's invaluable political values survey is just out, emphasizing the continued growth in political independents, a group that appears increasingly conflicted about the role of government.
The new poll's sweeping questionnaire allows an updated look at the impact the growth in independent voters and corresponding decline among partisans could have on the nation's ideological leanings as the Obama presidency unfolds. This is particularly true on views of government, as the report notes: "The political values of independents are mixed and run counter to orthodox liberal and conservative thinking about government."
The Center's analysis used 13 indices to gauge public opinion on a range of issue areas. As partisan opinions have grown apart on many topics, independents, who have grown as a share of the population, have not moved consistently in one ideological direction.
(In 2007, the Post, along with our partners at the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University School of Public Health, conducted an in-depth survey of independent voters, finding a politically diverse group, whose impact would prove critical in the 2008 election.)
On questions of the social safety net and equal opportunities and rights, independents have shifted toward traditional Republican positions, while on broader role of government questions, independents hew more closely to the Democratic point of view. Independents also tend to lean closer to Democrats on issues including regulation of the free market, social values, religiosity and national security, but are more apt to agree with Republicans on government responsiveness.
While independents on the whole remain a relatively centrist bunch, partisans in the poll have grown markedly further apart. The average difference between Republican and Democratic responses to a range of values questions stands at 16 percentage points, the highest level in surveys dating back to 1987.
That mirrors a trend evident in exit polling dating back to the mid-1970s: A steady climb in ideological alignment among partisans. Nearly four in 10 Democrats voting in the 2008 election considered themselves liberal, tying the previous high of 39 percent in 2004, while among Republicans, 64 percent who voted in 2008 considered themselves conservative, the highest level in any modern exit poll.
The Pew Center's survey provides a broad, baseline measure on partisan and ideological views at the outset of the "Obama era." Whether the trendlines continue to move Obama's way will determine whether that era ends in 2012 or beyond.