The Myth of the Middle
The story of 2006 was that regular Americans were sick of partisan divisions in Washington. The vast and consensus-hungry middle asserted itself in November, the narrative went, finally ordering the parties and their childish politicians to stop fighting and to work together.
After the vote, bipartisanship was all the buzz, and moderation the wave of the future. But something happened on the way to the evening campfire and s'mores. House Republicans started complaining about Democrats riding roughshod into the majority, refusing to consider their amendments to legislation. President Bush announced that he wasn't going to let the opposition of congressional Democrats stop him from sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to Iraq. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders trashed most of Bush's domestic policy proposals as soon as they were announced in his State of the Union address.
One explanation for all this is that politicians are acting against the will of their compromise-loving constituents. Another is that Republicans and Democrats are simply being good representatives. We think the evidence supports the second interpretation.
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) surveyed more than 24,000 Americans who voted in 2006. The Internet-based survey compiled by researchers at 30 universities produced a sample that almost perfectly matched the national House election results: 54 percent of the respondents reported voting for a Democrat, while 46 percent said they voted for a Republican. The demographic characteristics of the voters surveyed also closely matched those in the 2006 national exit poll. If anything, the CCES respondents claimed they were more "independent" than those in the exit poll.
The CCES survey asked about 14 national issues: the war in Iraq (the invasion and the troops), abortion (and partial birth abortion), stem cell research, global warming, health insurance, immigration, the minimum wage, liberalism and conservatism, same-sex marriage, privatizing Social Security, affirmative action, and capital gains taxes. Not surprisingly, some of the largest differences between Democrats and Republicans were over the Iraq war. Fully 85 percent of those who voted for Democratic House candidates felt that it had been a mistake to invade Iraq, compared with only 18 percent of voters who cast ballots for Republicans.
But the divisions between the parties weren't limited to Iraq. They extended to every issue in the survey. For example, 69 percent of Democratic voters chose the most strongly pro-choice position on the issue of abortion, compared with 20 percent of Republican voters; only 16 percent of Democratic voters supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, while 80 percent of Republican voters did; and 91 percent of Democratic voters favored governmental action to reduce global warming, compared with 27 percent of Republican voters.
When we combined voters' answers to the 14 issue questions to form a liberal-conservative scale (answers were divided into five equivalent categories based on overall liberalism vs. conservatism), 86 percent of Democratic voters were on the liberal side of the scale while 80 percent of Republican voters were on the conservative side. Only 10 percent of all voters were in the center. The visual representation of the nation's voters isn't a nicely shaped bell, with most voters in the moderate middle. It's a sharp V.
The evidence from this survey isn't surprising; nor are the findings new. For the past three decades, the major parties and the electorate have grown more divided -- in what they think, where they live and how they vote. It may be comforting to believe our problems could be solved if only those vile politicians in Washington would learn to get along. The source of the country's division, however, is nestled much closer to home.
Alan Abramowitz is a political science professor at Emory University. Bill Bishop is a journalist in Austin who is writing a book on political segregation.