The Pew Research Center has released one of its periodic typology studies (the last was in 2005), and you can expect it to have considerable influence on the language of political analysis in the immediate future. Here’s how the report authors sum up what’s happened to the “clustering” of Americans into relatively coherent groups in the last five or six years:
With the economy still struggling and the nation involved in multiple military operations overseas, the public’s political mood is fractious. In this environment, many political attitudes have become more doctrinaire at both ends of the ideological spectrum, a polarization that reflects the current atmosphere in Washington.
Yet at the same time, a growing number of Americans are choosing not to identify with either political party, and the center of the political spectrum is increasingly diverse. Rather than being moderate, many of these independents hold extremely strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, the environment and social issues. But they combine these views in ways that defy liberal or conservative orthodoxy.
For political leaders in both parties, the challenge is not only one of appeasing ideological and moderate “wings” within their coalitions, but rather holding together remarkably disparate groups, many of whom have strong disagreements with core principles that have defined each party’s political character in recent years.
More specifically, the new typology presents two Republican clusters (Staunch Conservatives and Main Street Republicans); three groups of Democrats (Solid Liberals, New Coalition Democrats, and Hard-Pressed Democrats); and three groups of independents (Libertarians, Disaffecteds, and Post-Moderns).
In general, Pew’s analysis reinforces the generally-accepted belief that Republicans enjoy more ideological coherence than Democrats, but there are some pretty striking contradictions between the views of the Staunch Conservatives who dominate GOP politics these days and at least one of the GOP-leaning indie groups, the Disaffecteds, who support more government help for the needy and strongly dislike corporations. The three Democratic “types” and the Democratic-leaning indie group the Post-Moderns have significant differences of opinion on the importance of the environment and attitudes towards immigrants.
You can wander around in the data presented in this report for days. But the important thing to remember with any political typology is that particular groups should not become obsessive objects of attention. For Democrats, “capturing” indie groups from the GOP, for example, doesn’t matter a bit more than boosting rates among Democratic groups or shaving votes from the Republican margins among GOP groups. Indeed, the Pew report shows that one of the biggest pro-Republican swings between 2008 and 2010 was among Main Street Republicans, whose modest but significant support levels for Obama in 2008 all but vanished two years later.
A vote’s a vote, in other words, but it is very helpful to know how combinations of issues and demographic factors combine to shape the electorate.