The 2012 Vote: A Newly Diverse Center

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Demographic transformations are changing how the American people vote. In 2010, only 15 per cent of Americans claimed to be completely unaffiliated independent voters, while 48 per cent identified with the Democratic Party and 37 per cent with the Republican Party. Back in the 1990s, party identification was at 44 per cent each.

The Democrats' advantage is due in large part to Millennial voters, recognised as the biggest and most important new voting cohort in America politics. Sometimes referred to as the ‘youth vote’, Millennials are generally born between 1982 and 2003. The Democratic advantage can also be attributed to an increase in Hispanic voters, who identify as Democrats over Republicans by a 2:1 margin.

According to a study released in May by the Pew Research Center, of those registered voters in America who identify as Republicans, 14 per cent hold conservative views on most issues, 14 per cent are moderates with liberal views on most social issues, 11 per cent are staunch Tea Party conservatives, 11 per cent are disaffected down-sizers and 10 per cent are free market, small government libertarians. Of those registered voters who identify as Democrats, 16 per cent are solid Democrats (liberal on all issues), another 15 per cent are hard pressed (religious, and financially struggling),and 9 per cent are New Coalition Democrats (positive, minority-rights oriented).

Many American voters are choosing not to identify with either political party. Unlike the Australian Independent voter, those Americans who reject the major parties, rather than moving towards the fringes, are flocking to the centre of the political spectrum. This has resulted in the centre becoming increasingly diverse.

Surprisingly, the two independent members of the Senate, Bernie Sanders (Vermont) and former Democrat Joe Lieberman (Connecticut), rather than being centrists, hold strong ideological positions on issues such as the role of government, immigration, and the environment. Their election defies liberal or conservative orthodoxy and challenges the idea of the centering of the American voter.

Evidence from the Pew report suggests that voters on the Right are polarising. Staunch conservatives are clearly identifiable in polling. These voters take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues, from the size and role of government to economics, foreign policy and domestic social issues. Most are aligned with Tea Party Republicans in their disapproval of Barack Obama. There still exists a core group of Main Street Republicans, however, they are becoming less identifiable in opinion polls and in national polling.

On the Left, not surprisingly, Solid Liberals express diametrically opposing views from the Staunch Conservatives on virtually every issue. While Solid Liberals are predominantly white, minorities make up greater shares of New Coalition Democrats, who are distinguished by their upbeat attitudes in the face of economic struggles. This group includes nearly equal numbers of whites, African Americans and Hispanics. Hard-Pressed Democrats are about a third African American. Unlike Solid Liberals, both of these last two groups are highly religious and socially conservative.

Some American voters like to be considered Libertarians and Post-Moderns. Both groups are largely white, well-educated and affluent. They tend to be secular and are pro-homosexuality and abortion. Republican-oriented Libertarians, however, are far more critical of government, less supportive of environmental regulations, and more supportive of business.

A survey conducted for the progressive think tank NDN found that a majority of Americans — 54 per cent — favor a government that actively tries to solve societal and economic problems, rather than one that takes a hands-off approach.

Staunch Conservatives and Main Street Republicans share similar views on the positive role of religion in society (90 and 91 per cent respectively), and that immigrants are a burden on American society (68 and 60 per cent). Staunch Conservatives more strongly believe that governments can no longer afford to help the needy (87 per cent) than Main Street Republicans (75 per cent). In relation to the economy and the environment there are significant differences. Staunch Conservatives very strongly believe environmental laws cost too many jobs and hurt the economy (92 per cent), a view not held by Main Street Republicans (only 22 per cent support the claim). Most Main Street Republicans think business corporations make too much profit (58 Per cent). This view is rejected by Staunch Republicans. Only 13 per cent of this group believes corporations make too much profit.

Democratic voters, according to the Pew study, are divided over immigration. Solid Liberals overwhelming agree that immigrants strengthen American society. This is a view held by the very few Hard Pressed Democrats (13 per cent). New Coalition Democrats are more in line with Solid Democrats on the question of immigration (70 per cent think immigrants make a positive contribution). Democrats favor diplomacy as the way to peace: Hard Pressed by 56 per cent), Solid Liberals by 89 per cent. There are also significant differences on gay rights and environmental laws. Over 90 per cent of Solid Liberals support gay rights and environmental protections. Among Hard Pressed Democrats, 43 per cent support gay rights and 22 per cent see environmental laws as hurting the economy and costing jobs. Each of the three Democratic voter groups share similar views on the need for improvements to ensure equal rights for African Americans.

Age is a factor in partisanship and political values. Younger people are more numerous on the Left, and older people on the Right. Staunch Republicans over 50 years of age are the most highly engaged in following government and public affairs (75 per cent).

How do American voters rank Barack Obama? It's not surprising that Republicans disapprove of Obama’s job performance and health care plan. The problem for Obama is that he does not have enough support among Democrat voters to counter Staunch Republicans: Among Solid Liberals, only 64 per cent strongly approve of Obama’s job performance.

Obama’s personal image is positive among American voters, but his job approval rating is low. Doubts raised by ‘birthers’ continue to get traction in American politics. More than one-in-five Americans (23 per cent) say, incorrectly, that Obama was born outside the United States.

This new portrait of the American voter will challenge both Democrats and Republicans in the lead-up to the 2012 presidential election. For politicians on both sides, the challenge is to appease the ideological and moderate wings, each with competing goals and aspirations, and at the same time to ensure that each wing does not break out into disagreements with the other over core principles. The Tea Party Conservatives and Republicans have recently gone to the brink, but managed to pull back 'for the sake of the Party’.

Perhaps the answer is in Bertolt Brecht’s quip: “Would it not be easier for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?”

Dr Scott Denton completed a PhD on Australian elections in 2010. He is an academic at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, who regularly writes on Australian and American elections and electoral history.

Photo by Ho John Lee (HJL): Vote!