A major new collection of survey data gives us a striking profile of political alignments in the United States now as the 1992 campaigns are about to enter their final, decisive stage, and reminds us just how dramatically the two major party coalitions have been transformed.
Much attention has centered on the presidential run of independent Ross Perot. But however that turns out, the vast preponderance of contests are once again two-way affairs between Democrats and Republicans. The new data show that little in the current makeup of the Republican and Democratic coalitions resembles that in the preceding era of party competition -- which began in the New Deal and continued into the 1960s.
To get a sufficient number of cases to examine reliably the partisan preferences of the various social groups making up the U.S. electorate, staff of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research recently combined all the regular Gallup surveys done nationally by telephone from October of last year through this May -- eight in number, with a total of more than 9,000 persons interviewed. This combination via computer was possible because each of the separate studies collected much of the same demographic information -- age, race, sex, income, etc. -- in the same form, and each asked respondents about their party preferences.
The 1991-92 Gallup surveys show an electorate now at complete partisan parity -- 34 percent calling themselves Republicans, 33 percent Democrats and 33 percent independents. In the previous era of party competition, of course, the Democrats had enjoyed a large margin in party loyalties.
Many of the group differences that characterized earlier party systems have largely disappeared. For example, today there are virtually no differences in party support between Protestants and Catholics. A religious-ethnic split that loomed so large through most of U.S. history now has finally vanished.
Similarly, regional differences are now the smallest they have ever been. In 1952, according to Gallup data, the Republicans had a slight edge in party support in the Northeast and Midwest, while the Democrats had a massive -- 43 percentage point -- lead in the South. The latter region then began an immense partisan swing, first and more rapidly in presidential voting, gradually in underlying party loyalties. Now, however, Southerners divide in professed partisanship almost exactly like Northerners. Among whites, 38 percent in the South and 37 percent elsewhere in the country call themselves Republicans.
The relationship of age to party support today is precisely opposite to what it was in the previous era of party competition. From the 1930s through the 1960s, the young were the Democrats' best age group, the elderly their worst. It's now reversed. According to the 1991-92 Gallup data, the Republicans lead by 8 percentage points among those 18-29, by 6 points among those in their 30s; the two parties are even among people in their 40s; the Democrats lead by 5 points among those in their 50s and by 4 among persons in their 60s; their lead is largest -- 8 percentage points -- among voters in their 70s, the group that came of age politically during the Great Depression.
An equally fascinating new partisan divide appears between the sexes. Historically, men and women never differed significantly in their patterns of party support. Now, however, men are more Republican, women more Democratic. These gender differences are not yet large taking all age groups together -- but they are very large among the young, and virtually nonexistent among persons over 40 years of age.
The new Gallup surveys show young (18-29) men very heavily Republican, by 41-22 percent, a 19-point margin. Young women, however, give the Democrats a small edge (3 points, 34-31 percent). This makes the ''gender gap'' 22 points among the young. In contrast, it is a scant 5 points for men and women in their 50s.
Overall, as noted, the magnitude of group differences in party support is now notably smaller than it was in earlier periods. If for analytic convenience we classify as ''massive'' instances where one party leads the other by 30 percentage points or more among members of a given social group, we can find only one such case today. The Gallup surveys recorded black Americans as backing the Democrats over the Republicans in party identification by a 59-8 percent margin.
With this single exception, both parties are at least marginally competitive in every important social group. While the Democrats lead among Hispanics, for instance, the GOP is still very much in the running: Gallup shows Hispanic Americans 44 percent Democratic, 29 percent Republican, 27 percent independent. College graduates are clearly but not overwhelmingly Republican -- by 38-27 percent in the Gallup surveys; those with less than a high school education are clearly but again not overwhelmingly Democratic -- by 43-28 percent.
The 1992 elections are thus being contested within an electorate in which the two main parties are unusually evenly matched in underlying support, and one in which the various social strata are on the whole notably unpolarized.
Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut. He wrote this commentary for the Christian Science Monitor.