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ANALYSIS: In U.S., political split outgrows the voting booth

Thursday, June 12, 2014 | 12:12 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Political polarization in America has broken out of the voting booth.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center finds Americans are divided by ideology and partisanship not only when they cast ballots, but also in choosing where to live, where to get their news and with whom to associate.

And peaceful coexistence is increasingly difficult.

According to the poll, the share of Americans who hold across-the-board conservative or liberal views has doubled in the last decade, to 21 percent today from 10 percent in 2004. Only 39 percent of Americans have an even mix of liberal and conservative positions, down from 49 percent 10 years ago.

The numbers of ideological purists are larger among the politically engaged than the general public, suggesting the ideological stalemates that have become more common in Washington and statehouses around the country are likely to continue. A third of those who say they regularly vote in primaries have all-or-nothing ideological views, as do 41 percent who say they have donated money to a campaign.

And among partisans, ideological purity is now the standard. Majorities in both parties hold either uniformly liberal (on the Democratic side) or conservative (among the GOP) views.

The shift toward ideological purity has been more visible among Republicans because of the popularity of the tea party, seen most recently this week in House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's loss to a tea party-based challenger in Virginia, but the survey found it's happening in nearly equal measure among Democrats.

Those differences in visibility are partly due to the Democratic hold on the White House, according to Pew Research Center Vice President Michael Dimock.

"Levels of alarm about the direction of the nation, and about the 'threat' the other party poses to the country, are substantially higher on the right than on the left right now, and at least in part this reflects the fact that Barack Obama is in the White House," Dimock said.

But Democrats have expressed their share of distrust in the past, he noted in an email. "Democrats felt pretty passionately about George W. Bush and the GOP in his second term," he said.

The survey used a battery of 10 questions on issues such as regulation of business, use of the military, the environment and immigration to assess ideological leanings. Across nine of the 10 issues tested, the views of Democrats and Republicans have grown further apart since 1994.

These ideological shifts have been accompanied by increasing animosity across party lines, and those on opposite sides of the partisan and ideological divide are now more apt to separate themselves in their personal lives as well.

About 8 in 10 Democrats say they have an unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party, and for 82 percent of Republicans, the feeling is mutual. This cross-party dislike has increased by double digits on both sides.

Among those with ideologically consistent views in each party, many go further than dislike and say they see the other side as a threat to the nation's well-being. Republicans with consistently conservative views are more apt than Democrats with a strictly liberal view to see the opposite party as a threat, however, 66 percent to 50 percent.

Amid all this rancor, partisans and those with clear ideological leanings are more often choosing to associate only with those who hold views similar to their own. Two-thirds of consistent conservatives and half of consistent liberals say most of their close friends share their political views. Three in 10 on each side of the divide say it's important to them to live in a place where most people share their political views.

And one-quarter of consistent liberals say they'd be unhappy if an immediate family member married a Republican; 30 percent of consistent conservatives say the same about a union with a Democrat.

The findings are based on a telephone survey of 10,013 randomly selected adults nationwide, conducted between Jan. 23 and March 16. Results based on the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1.1 percentage points.


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