The political center is shrinking. Here’s proof.

There was a time in the not too distant past when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans made up significant parts of their respective coalitions. Northeastern Republicans moderated the GOP, while Southern Democrats pulled their party to the right.

Those days are over. A new mega-survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades. At the same time, the ideological overlap between the  parties has shrunk to historic lows: Now, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the average Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the average Republican.

Here’s what the ideological divide looks like:

Pew’s mammoth political survey — they polled more than 10,000 adults over a two-month period  this year — found Democrats are taking more consistently liberal positions than they have in the past, while Republicans are taking more consistently conservative positions. The percentage of Democrats taking mostly or consistently liberal positions has grown from 30 percent in Pew’s 1994 study to 56 percent today; the number of Republicans taking mostly or consistently conservative positions has spiked from 31 percent in the 2004 study to 53 percent today.

The gaps between the two sides mirrors the partisan divide on Capitol Hill, where studies show fewer members regularly cross party lines. In National Journal’s annual vote rankings, no Democratic senator’s voting record is to the right of even the most liberal Republican, and no Republican senator is to the left of any Democrat.

Among voters, the ideological gap is increasingly large across a wide array of issues. The two sides differ greatly on whether government regulation does more harm than good; 68 percent of Republicans agree, while just 29 percent of Democrats concur, a gap that’s grown from 18 points in 1994 to 39 points today.

The gap between Democrats and Republicans who say government is almost always wasteful and inefficient has grown from 15 points in 1994 to 35 points today. And the gap between Democrats and Republicans who say government can’t afford to do much to help the needy has spiked from 21 points in 1994 to 39 points today.

Here’s a look at some of the growing gaps between Democrats and Republicans on specific issues:


Exacerbating the shrinking middle, increasing partisanship is leading to increasingly negative feelings about the other party. The percentage of Democrats who view the Republican Party very unfavorably has risen from 16 percent in 1994 to 38 percent today; the percentage of Republicans who feel the same negative vibe about the Democratic Party has spiked from 17 percent in 1994 to 43 percent today.

The Pew Research Center poll was conducted Jan. 23 to March 16 among a random national sample of 10,013 adults on landline and cellphones with live interviewers. The margin of error for overall results ranges between 1.1 to 2 percentage points; the error margin ranges from 2.9 to 6.1 percentage points for political subgroups such as “Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents” or “consistent conservatives.” Full methodology and question wording available at pewresearch.org.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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