WASHINGTON - Despite the Republican Party's victory last November, there are strains within the nation's governing party, and President Bush's personal popularity may be the key element holding it together, according to a new national opinion study.
The Republican base is divided over economic and domestic issues such as government help for the poor and regulating business to help the environment. Those divergent views could create increasing instability in the future, especially if national security - a unifying factor for the president's party since Sept. 11 - fades in importance as the country moves toward a post-Bush era.
Democrats, meantime, are united mainly by opposition to the president. Their party, too, faces serious internal divisions that pose "formidable challenges" in the future.
Those are among the conclusions by the independent Pew Research Center, which broke down the American electorate into nine groups in fashioning its latest "political typology," the most recent installment in a series of studies dating to the late 1980s.
The report, released yesterday, was based on two extensive national polls. A survey of 2,000 voting-age Americans in December was followed in late March by a second, which reinterviewed 1,090 of those from the December survey.
Andrew Kohut, who directs the Pew Center, credited Bush's "broad personal appeal" with pulling swing voters, many of them independents, into the Republican camp.
"To a certain extent, he's been the glue that's bound together this coalition," Kohut said at a news briefing.
But the Republican coalition faces an uncertain future, he said, because of splits within the party base.
For example, Republicans have for years united behind a belief in the idea of limited government. Increasingly, however, that is becoming a divisive topic within the Bush coalition, the Pew study found.
As Republicans have gained in recent elections, they have attracted a significant amount of support from what the study calls "pro-government conservatives." This largely female, financially struggling group - which accounts for one in 10 registered voters - agrees with other Republicans on social issues, including a belief that society should discourage homosexuality as a way of life and that faith in God is necessary in order to be a good, moral person.
At the same time, however, these Republican-leaning social conservatives favor government activism to assist the poor and stricter regulation of business to protect the public interest. That puts them sharply at odds with the rest of the Republican base, which takes a more traditional pro-business, anti-government stance.
Among the more surprising findings in the survey was strong support for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among some Republican voters. Half of the Republican pro-government conservatives (51 percent) said they have a favorable impression of the New York senator, who is a potential 2008 Democratic candidate for president. In the last election, those same voters supported Bush by more than 5-to-1 over Democrat John Kerry.
Clinton was viewed less favorably, however, by two key groups of independent swing voters, which Pew termed "upbeats" and "disaffecteds." These voters, who favored Bush by lopsided margins in last year's election, held more favorable views of potential 2008 Republican candidates, including Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, and even of Clinton's husband, the former president, than they did of the former first lady.
Her relatively strong poll numbers were also reflected in another national poll, released last week by Marist College. It found that the country is divided evenly on the question of whether she should run for president and showed her outpacing other potential Democratic candidates by a wide margin.
The authors of the Pew study, who probed beneath the surface of public attitudes on a wide range of issues, concluded that the extreme partisan polarization of recent years is confined largely to matters of foreign policy and military action in Iraq and elsewhere.
"In fact, public values about security and the use of military force are among the only value dimensions in which Republican and Democratic groups clearly align on opposite sides," the report concludes. "In most cases, there are fissures within the party coalitions that are at least as important as the divide between the parties overall."
While Democrats are much more divided than Republicans on cultural and religious values, the study found that attitudes relating to those issues have become much less important in determining party affiliation in the post-Sept. 11 world.
International affairs and attitudes about the assertiveness of U.S. policy overseas have become a defining difference between the parties since the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to the study. National security issues in general, and the use of military force in particular, had been relatively minor factors in the earlier Pew studies, which date from 1987.
Posted at the Pew Web site, www.people-press.org, is a test that allows participants to determine where on the political landscape they belong.