U.S. Political Parties Reach Biggest Divide in 25 Years

  • by Charles Babington
  • December 05, 2016
  • News

Editor’s Recommendation

An Evolving Electorate: 4 Changing Demographics

Fall 2016

Political polarization

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As the United States becomes more ethnically diverse, better educated, and less religious, the two major political parties are evolving the same way but at such differing paces that the parties’ electorates look less alike than at any time in the past quarter-century.

The Democratic Party is becoming less white, less religious, and better educated at a faster rate than the country as a whole, while aging at a slower rate. The reverse is true for the Republican Party. GOP voters lag behind the nation in becoming more racially diverse, better educated, and less religious. And the Republican electorate is aging more quickly than the overall U.S. electorate.

These are among the main findings of a Pew Research Center study released in September of voter trends from 1992 to 2016 called The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election: Two Coalitions, Moving Further Apart. The trends outlined in the report pose obvious challenges for the Republican Party, whose base remains overwhelmingly white in a nation growing increasingly nonwhite. But they also present concerns for Democrats, who still rely on whites for most of their votes and who have not widened their small edge in party identification among U.S. voters.

Some of the sharpest movements uncovered by the study, which included more than 8,000 voter interviews this year, involve education levels. In the eight years since President Barack Obama was first elected, whites with no college experience have become 14 percentage points more likely to affiliate with the Republican Party. Fifty-nine percent of whites with no college experience now identify as Republican or lean Republican, while only one-third identify as Democrats or lean Democratic. That’s a dramatic shift from 2007, when Democrats held a slight edge among non-college-educated whites.

Less-educated white men are abandoning the Democratic Party faster than their female counterparts are. Today, white men without a college degree (65 percent) are much more likely than white women without a college degree (51 percent) to identify as or lean Republican.

Setting education aside, white voters in general—who were roughly divided in their partisan leanings eight years ago—are now much more likely to identify as Republican or lean Republican (54 percent) than to say they identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (39 percent).

Despite all this, the overall balance of party identification has changed little. This year, 48 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats or said they lean Democratic, compared with 44 percent who identified as or leaned Republican. These numbers haven’t changed since 2012: The GOP has offset Democratic gains among several demographic groups by improving its standing among older voters—who also make up a larger share of the electorate today—and among white voters, men, and those with lower levels of education.

For all its success with minorities, the Democratic Party still relies on whites for well over half its votes. The 2016 Democratic electorate was 57 percent white. Still, that’s a significant drop from the 76 percent in 1992. The Republican Party’s shift is far less dramatic. Its electorate this year was 86 percent white, compared with 93 percent white in 1992.

Carroll Doherty, director of political research at the Pew Research Center, says he’s especially struck by the pace of change in party affiliation among college-educated voters. “The changing racial dynamics are pretty well known,” Doherty says, but the education changes are more surprising. What’s particularly noteworthy, he says, is that “attitudinally, more educated adults are becoming more liberal, and leaning more Democratic.”

Still, neither party should be too quick to draw big conclusions, he says, because voting habits among demographic groups (Hispanics, for instance) can shift unpredictably.

The study’s findings should especially worry Republican leaders hoping to win presidential elections in 2020 and beyond, says Norman Ornstein, a political and congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Demographically, “Republicans are heading in the wrong direction,” he says.

But Republican leaders may have a hard time convincing rank-and-file members that they need to reshape their strategies or policies to meet the nation’s changing demographics, Ornstein says. That’s because these demographic voting trends apply mainly—for now, at least—to presidential races, and not to campaigns for the House of Representatives and Senate, where Republicans continue to prosper. Population shifts, House redistricting practices, and the two-senators-per-state rule (which favors small states) combine to help Republicans do relatively well in nonpresidential elections.

As a result, Ornstein says, “the GOP lacks incentives to change.” An official Republican post-mortem analysis after Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 presidential race called for a more inclusive party message—especially regarding immigration—to reach voters. But GOP leaders got little support for this idea from the rank and file.

Democrats shouldn’t become complacent, though. For one thing, they rely heavily on younger voters. Yet millennials (now ages roughly 22 to 36) have far less faith in government than did their parents and grandparents, Ornstein says. To solidify the loyalty of these unenthusiastic voters as they age, he says, Democrats—seen as the pro-government party—“must have a message that resonates.”

Amy Walter, national editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, says all the demographic trends highlighted in the report might not hurt Republicans in the short run. “Relying on an older, whiter, no-college base does not always spell disaster,” she says. Republicans can stay competitive in presidential races if they excel at voter turnout, and various other factors help them in congressional and gubernatorial races.

But over the next 20 years or so, Walter says, Republicans must find ways to broaden their appeal. What happens, she asks, to a coalition that depends on older, whiter voters in a country growing less white? She says Republicans must remember that the next cohorts to enter their 50s, 60s, and 70s will be less white than today’s older Americans.

Partisan competition aside, Walter says, it’s troubling to contemplate the implications for American society and democracy if the nation becomes increasingly divided between one party that’s heavily identified with nonwhite and well-educated voters, and another party that relies overwhelmingly on white and less-educated voters.

Simply put, Walter says, “it’s not good.”