Disparate Coalitions Now Make Up Two Parties, Study Finds

Income and education are no longer the best measure of party identification.
Income and education are no longer the best measure of party identification. (By Chuck Fadely -- Miami Herald Via Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 16, 2005

Four times in the past two decades, beginning in 1987, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has mapped the U.S. electorate. These studies have provided a guide to the changing shape of American politics, the strength of the major political parties, the stability -- or fragility -- of their coalitions and how issues unite or divide the country.

The latest effort was released last week, a thick booklet of data, charts and analysis from a Pew team led by director Andrew Kohut that describes the post-Sept. 11, 2001, political landscape.

In describing the new shape of the electorate, the study shows how far the country has moved from the days when income and education were the most useful barometers in predicting a person's party identification. Both parties now are coalitions of the wealthy and not-so-wealthy, and of well-educated and less-educated voters.

Taken together, the findings show why neither party can take its coalition for granted in future campaigns.

Pew divided the electorate into nine groups. Three are Republican-leaning: Enterprisers, Social Conservatives and Pro-Government Conservatives -- the one GOP group with significant numbers of lower-income people. Three are Democratic-leaning: Liberals, Disadvantaged Democrats and Conservative Democrats. Two are neither clearly Republican nor clearly Democrat: Upbeats and Disaffecteds. Finally there are the Bystanders, so named because they play little active role in politics.

The study makes clear that Republicans are no longer the party just of the wealthy, nor are Democrats the party purely of the working class. As recent presidential elections made clear, Democrats have their own economic elite as part of their core constituency, and Republicans have their own cadre of down-scale supporters.

The Pew study found that, in terms of personal income, the Republican Enterprisers and the Democratic Liberals look almost identical. About four in 10 in each group said they have household incomes of $75,000 or more. The same held for one of the groups in the middle, the Upbeats. Enterprisers are the most likely to own or trade stocks (53 percent), followed by the Upbeats (42 percent), Liberals (38 percent) and Social Conservatives (35 percent).

Looked at from the other end of the income scale, nearly half of Pro-Government Conservatives have incomes of $30,000 or below, about the same as the Disadvantaged Democrats.

A similar pattern occurs when the groups are measured by years of educational achievement. Enterprisers and Liberals look very much alike: 49 percent of Liberals and 46 percent of Enterprisers are college graduates.

At the other end, 13 percent of Disadvantaged Democrats graduated from college, while in the Republican coalition, 15 percent of Pro-Government Conservatives graduated from college. In the cluster of groups that form the middle of the electorate, 11 percent of Disaffecteds finished college, while 37 percent of Upbeats are college graduates.

For all their similarities on income and education, Enterprisers on the right and Liberals on the left diverge on religious habits and cultural attitudes. For example, almost half of Enterprisers attend religious services at least weekly, while just a fifth of Liberals go to religious services that often. A fifth of Liberals are classified in the Pew study as secular -- defined as atheists, agnostics or those who say they have no religious affiliation -- compared with about one in 20 of the Enterprisers.

Four-fifths of Enterprisers have a favorable opinion of the National Rifle Association, while three-fourths of Liberals have an unfavorable view of the pro-gun rights group. Three in five Enterprisers say they own a gun, while three-fourths of Liberals say they do not. Three-fourths of Enterprisers say they display the American flag at home, on their car or at work; just 41 percent of Liberals do the same.

The most striking differences between lower-income Republicans and lower-income Democrats come in their perceptions of the power of the individual. Both Pro-Government Conservatives and Disadvantaged Democrats include a substantial number of people who consider themselves to be struggling financially. Overwhelming majorities in both groups say they often cannot make ends meet.

But where they part company is in their overall sense of optimism, with the Republican group expressing much greater faith in personal empowerment. Three-fourths of the Pro-Government Conservatives agreed that people can get ahead by working hard, and four-fifths agreed that everyone has the power to succeed. Just 14 percent of Disadvantaged Democrats agreed with the first statement, and only 44 percent agreed with the second.

Despite similarities in income and education, there are major differences between the Enterprisers and Liberals on issues. More than four in five Enterprisers say military force is the best way to defeat terrorism, while nine in 10 Liberals say that relying too much on force creates hatred and more terrorism. Nine in 10 Enterprisers oppose same-sex marriage, while eight in 10 Liberals favor such unions. Nine in 10 Liberals favor government health insurance for all Americans, while three-fourths of Enterprisers oppose it.

But with both Republicans and Democrats now disparate coalitions, there are significant intraparty differences on many issues as well.

A bare majority of Enterprisers favor cutting taxes over reducing the budget deficit, while the other two groups in the GOP coalition say budget-cutting should be a higher priority. Four in five Pro-Government Conservatives say the government should do more to help the needy, even if that increases the government debt, while two in three Enterprisers say the government cannot afford to do more.

The Pew study -- based on two polls, one in December of 2,000 people and a follow-up in March with 1,090 people from the original sample -- explains why Republicans have emerged from the 2004 elections with an advantage over the Democrats. Although both parties enjoy strong support among their core voters, the Pew study concluded that Republicans have done a more effective job in attracting support among voters with less allegiance to either party as well as capitalizing on favorable personal opinions of President Bush and support for military action.


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