GOP-Democratic gap widening, poll finds

As differences in beliefs grow, voter affiliations with parties evening out

November 06, 2003|By Ronald Brownstein | Ronald Brownstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Across a range of domestic and foreign-policy issues, the gap between the views of Republican and Democratic partisans is wider than at any point in the past 16 years, a major new survey has found.

The survey, by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, portrays a nation profoundly polarized between two political camps that are nearly identical in size but inimical in their beliefs on almost all major questions.

The center, which began measuring public opinion in 1987, found in its new poll that the disagreement between Republicans and Democrats is greater than ever on topics such as national security, the social safety net, big business and equal rights for minorities.

"The extraordinary spirit of national unity that followed the calamitous events of Sept. 11, 2001, has dissolved amid rising polarization and anger," said Andrew Kohut, Pew's director.

Since the terrorist attacks, according to the new poll, the share of Americans who consider themselves Republicans has increased to the point where the GOP, for the first time since the party takeover of Congress in 1994, has drawn even with Democrats in public support.

The poll also found voters split in half on whether they intend to support President Bush or a Democrat in the 2004 presidential race - and dividing along the same lines of class, race, gender and religious attitudes as in the razor-thin election of 2000.

"It is still the 50-50 nation," Kohut said.

The poll measured the views of 2,528 adults from July 14 through Aug. 5; the group polled 1,515 adults from Oct. 15-19 to update opinions on Bush and the war in Iraq. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points for the October survey, and 2 percentage points for the questions posed in the summer.

The survey captures several long-term shifts in the currents of U.S. politics. Among the key trends:

Across a battery of 24 questions measuring political and policy attitudes, the survey found that the average difference between Republican and Democratic attitudes is about 50 percent larger than in the late 1980s.

On specific issues, 72 percent of Democrats say government should do more to help needy people even if that means a bigger federal budget deficit, while 39 percent of Republicans agree. That 33-percentage-point difference is the largest the poll has recorded.

Likewise, while 69 percent of Republicans say the best way to ensure peace is through military strength, only 44 percent of Democrats agree. That 25-percentage-point gap also is the largest the poll has recorded - and nearly triple the difference as recently as 1997.

The gap also is the widest it's been on the question of whether corporations make too much profit: nearly three-quarters of Democrats agree, compared with a little less than half of Republicans.

Looking solely at white voters, the poll found 55 percent of Republicans compared with 34 percent of Democrats agree that "we have gone too far in pushing equal rights in this country." That, too, is the largest gap the survey has recorded.

On other policy choices, the poll reported that more than four-fifths of Republicans believe pre-emptive war is often or sometimes justified, compared with half of Democrats. Similarly, while 85 percent of Republicans believe it was the right decision to invade Iraq, 54 percent of Democrats say it was wrong.

On nearly all of these issues, independents typically take positions that fall between the attitudes expressed by party partisans. But there is some evidence in the survey that independents also are polarizing between those who lean toward the Democrats and those closer to the GOP. For instance, on both the peace-through-strength and government-aid-to-the-needy questions, attitudes among voters who lean Democratic or lean Republican are nearly indistinguishable from party members.

Within this overall pattern of polarization, the survey found that Democratic voters havemarkedly moved to the left since President Bill Clinton's administration. The percentage of Democrats who say government should do more to help the needy has jumped by nearly one-fourth since 1999, while the share who accept the peace-through-strength argument has plummeted by more than one-fifth since 1997.

That movement, analysts say, may reflect both the waning influence of Clinton, who offered a mostly centrist agenda, and the sharp Democratic backlash against Bush.

Republican attitudes on these questions, although still predominantly conservative, have changed less in recent years.

In their attitudes toward the political parties, Americans are increasingly dividing along lines of values.

In 1987, Pew found about seven in 10 Republican and Democratic voters expressed strong religious beliefs in their answers to questions meant to measure such attitudes; today, the figures for Democrats are the same, while the share of Republicans with strong religious beliefs has edged up near 80 percent.

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