The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The three reasons American elections are always so close

Voters mark their ballots during the New Hampshire primary in 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The people who swing between the parties often decide elections. But the overwhelmingly majority (more than 85 percent of the electorate) who stick with their side in most national elections are the voters who truly shape American politics.

A few decades ago, a party in control of the White House led by a president with low approval ratings at a time of historically high inflation (that’s the Democrats today) would have been virtually guaranteed to sustain huge losses in midterm election season.

There isn’t a precedent for Jan. 6, 2021, but ideally, the party whose top leader tried to overturn the results of the prior election would be guaranteed to lose resoundingly in the next one. Republicans lost 48 House seats in the midterms immediately after the Watergate scandal and Richard M. Nixon’s resignation.

But in the United States today, it’s rare for Democrats or Republicans to get below 46 percent or above 52 percent of the vote in any national election. We have an electorate split into two solid blocs that each comprises about 45 percent of voters. That means every election is competitive, and the House, Senate and presidency keep changing hands. Republicans held the presidency for all but four years between 1969 and 1993, but since then it has flipped four times. Democrats held the House from 1955 to 1995, but it has flipped three times since then, with a fourth change likely after next week.

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So it’s important to understand what’s keeping America so clearly split — and what’s not.

Americans are not divided by education

Education is not the reason. After Donald Trump surprisingly won the 2016 presidential election and exit polls showed his margin of victory among White voters without college degrees was significantly larger than Mitt Romney’s four years earlier, political observers have increasingly focused on education levels as an explanation for the partisan divide. The general idea is that Democrats have become the party of the college-educated, the Republicans the party of those without degrees.

It is true that over the past decade White voters without degrees have shifted to the GOP, while White voters with degrees have become more Democratic. In 2020, Joe Biden won about 33 percent of White voters without college degrees, compared with 57 percent of White people with at least a bachelor’s degree.

But the idea that education is driving our political divides is flawed in three ways. First of all, Asian, Black and Hispanic voters without degrees aren’t Republican-leaning. Biden won about three quarters of voters of color without degrees in 2020. Some surveys suggest that Democrats do better with Latino college graduates than Latino non-college graduates, but that’s not a consistent finding. There is little evidence of a big education divide among Asian and Black voters, both of whom are overwhelmingly Democratic.

Overall, Biden won 45 percent of voters without degrees, compared with 61 percent of those with degrees, a gap much smaller than many other divides in our politics. Polls suggest the 2022 elections will have a similar split.

Second, Democrats are not just college graduates — about half the party’s voters don’t have degrees.

Third, even among White people, education status isn’t that useful in predicting voting patterns. Asking a White person, “Do you support or oppose the Black Lives Matter movement?” or “Are you an evangelical Christian?” is way more predictive of their political party than their education level is. More than 80 percent of White Americans who identify as evangelical Christians voted Republican in 2020, as did more than 90 percent of White people who have an unfavorable view of BLM. White evangelicals with college degrees are overwhelmingly Republican. White voters who don’t have college degrees but also aren’t evangelicals are not.

They are divided by policy

What’s really driving our highly partisan, polarized voting? One hugely important factor is ideology and issue positions. The best predictor of how Americans vote is partisanship — people who are formal members of one of the two parties, generally align with one or almost always vote that party line in national elections. Another very strong predictor is ideology. Most voters identify as either liberal or conservative, and the overwhelming majority of liberals vote Democratic and conservatives vote Republican.

No matter how you label your ideology, having left-wing or right-wing views on most specific issues is also correlated with how you vote. Black voters often describe themselves as moderate or conservative. But when Robert Griffin of the Voter Study Group analyzed voters’ positions on issues based on 2020 polling, he found that 43 percent of Black voters were in the most liberal cohort of voters and only 10 percent were in the most conservative. That 43 percent was the largest of any racial or ethnic group; the 10 percent was the smallest. So Black voters are overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning in part because they are more left-leaning on issues.

Duh, you might say. But this alignment is important — and it’s increasing. Three decades ago, there was a sizable faction of Republican politicians and voters who held more liberal views. Meanwhile, many Democrats, particularly in the South, often had more conservative positions, such as opposing abortion rights. But increasingly, Democratic voters and politicians have either shifted to the party’s views on most issues — or changed to become Republicans if they disagree on something significant. Same for Republicans.

So each party is more internally consistent on policy but more divided from the other.

“The reason so many Americans intensely dislike those on the other side of the partisan divide is that they consistently disagree with those on the other side of the partisan divide on a wide range of issues,” says Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz.

They are also divided by racial views

Another major factor driving Americans into partisan, polarized voting is attitudes on issues of identity, particularly on race. This is related to ideology. But this divide seems more intense and irreconcilable because the parties are fighting over issues that are more personal and emotional than health-care policy.

Over the past decade, Democratic voters, inspired by movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, have shifted decidedly to the left on identity issues. Republicans haven’t, creating a huge chasm between them on these issues.

About 71 percent of Democrats now disagree with the statement, “If Black people would only try harder they could be just as well off as White people,” according to polling conducted by the Voter Study Group. Only 15 percent of Republicans disagree.

That Democratic number was only 50 percent in 2011, while the Republican number was about the same then (12 percent). About 74 percent of Democrats think undocumented immigrants “make a contribution to American society,” compared to 12 percent of Republicans. Those numbers were 39 percent and 10 percent in 2011.

Our divides on matters of identity go beyond race. Seventy percent of Republicans think American society is moving too quickly to accept transgender people, a view held by only 21 percent of Democrats. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans think America has become “too soft and feminine,” a view held by only 19 percent of Democrats.

These divides mean that Democrats are increasingly casting Republicans as hostile to some groups in American society, while Republicans angrily reject the idea that they are racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-trans. It is hard to consider voting for the other party if you consider it to be full of racists — or full of people who unfairly suggest your friends and family are racists.

“Democrats and Republicans disagree not only about the appropriate size and role of government — spending, taxation, etc. — but about basic questions of what America is and who is, or can be, fully American. And because issues like race and immigration tap into strong emotional currents, politics feels more divisive than it might if the scope of conflict mostly concerned income tax rates or cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security benefits,” public opinion scholars Robert Griffin, Mayesha Quasem, John Sides and Michael Tesler wrote in an essay last year.

They are also divided socially

A third factor entrenching the partisan divide is what scholars refer to as social polarization. Most voters don’t really have set policy or ideological views, even on racial or gender issues. But they have parents, spouses and friends; attend churches, synagogues and mosques; live in particular neighborhoods and cities; and consume certain kinds of media. Americans typically choose their party based on these social factors.

Then, they meet other Republicans, adopt more Republican policy stands, and eventually Republican isn’t just their political party but a kind of “mega-identity,” a term coined by Johns Hopkins political scientist Lilliana Mason.

“Partisanship, like religious identification, tends to be inherited, durable, and not about ideology or theology,” political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels argue in their book “Democracy for Realists.

Certain identities, such as White evangelical and Black voter, put you in very partisan political blocs. In 2020, 92 percent of Black voters backed Biden, and 84 percent of White evangelicals voted against him.

There are also geographic settings that reinforce partisanship. In D.C., 92 percent of the voters backed Biden. In Leslie County in Eastern Kentucky, 90 percent of voters backed Trump. The social polarization thesis is that those 90 percent-10 percent results aren’t just about ideology. Instead, living in D.C. pushes people toward being Democrats, and living in Leslie County pushes people toward the GOP. (About 25 percent of people in Leslie County voted Democratic in 2004.)

States like Iowa and Ohio that Democrats won in the 2012 presidential election had become so Republican eight years later that the party barely contested them. There is no obvious explanation for this shift in terms of policy, economics or demographics. Similar states (Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin) haven’t become as Republican.

What appears to be happening is that in some areas (rural White communities in Ohio and Iowa, Latino ones around the country) being a Republican became more popular socially. That spread happened more easily in areas without strong ties to the Democratic Party, so heavily Black areas, college towns and big urban areas didn’t shift rightward much.

At the same time, anti-Trump sentiment has made attending Black Lives Matter protests and voting Democratic a regular practice in many majority-White, once-Republican suburban areas across the country.

“Issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities — perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat — that really mobilize,” political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson write in their book “Let Them Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules In An Age of Extreme Inequality.”

Three-pronged polarization is hard to overcome

When you put these three kinds of polarization together, you understand why the United States is so divided by partisan voting — and hence in so much trouble. America needs a big bloc of the people who are voting Republican to at least temporarily back Democrats to force the Republican Party away from its current radical, antidemocratic posture.

But the overwhelming percentage of Republicans have stuck with their party, even as it has switched from Bush-McCain-Romney conservatism to Trumpism. This three-pronged polarization explains why. If you are a longtime Republican voter but wary of the party’s increasingly antidemocratic moves, you have two choices. You could vote Democratic, which would mean not only abandoning your conservative policy stances on a wide range of issues but also embracing a Democratic Party that talks about racism and sexism in ways that might offend you and probably distancing yourself from your friends, family and church.

Or you can just try to forget Jan. 6, 2021, happened and vote Republican. Unsurprisingly, most Republican voters are doing that.

It would be easier to resolve the United States’ differences if the nation were cartoonishly divided into overeducated snobs with three degrees and normal people. But we are divided into a group of people who describe themselves as liberals, hold left-leaning positions on most issues, are deeply committed to racial and gender equity, and spend most of their time with fellow Democrats and a group of people who describe themselves as conservatives, hold right-leaning positions on every issue, aren’t deeply committed to reducing gender and racial disparities, and spend most of their time with fellow Republicans.

Until all of that changes, we have a future of very divisive, very close elections. And there is no sign any of it is changing anytime soon. If neither Jan. 6 nor sky-high inflation can really shift American politics, it’s hard to imagine what will.