WASHINGTON -- American politics has long been defined as Red vs. Blue, and everything about the 2012 election speaks to the chasm that separates the two parties. But a major new study highlights how those divisions are only a part of the dynamic shaping the political landscape.
The study, conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, underscores that the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has never been wider. Partisan polarization now presents a potentially insurmountable barrier to governing for whomever wins the White House in November.
But the study -- based on a poll of more than 3,000 randomly selected adults -- also illuminates in striking new ways another reality about the contours of politics. Like families, the parties coalesce to repel threats from outside -- typified this summer by the scorched-earth tactics of the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney. But both parties also are fractious coalitions of people who may converge on some core issues but whose worldviews, economic situations and attitudes on policy are far from uniform.
PARTIES DIVIDED TOO
These disparate and ever-evolving coalitions present challenges for both Obama and Romney. They are why Romney struggled through much of the Republican nominating contest to win over key parts of his party and only united the GOP coalition by picking Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his vice presidential running mate. It is why Obama has faced dissonance and disappointment over the way he has governed from some elements of the Democratic Party, particularly many liberals who nonetheless back him strongly for re-election.
The two major parties will be on display over the coming weeks at their national conventions. Republicans go first, starting Aug. 27 in Tampa. Democrats meet in Charlotte the following week. Both will try to project an image of unity as they draw distinctions with their opponents. But Romney's selection of Ryan is a reminder that the parties recognize success in November depends in part on keeping their coalitions together and energized.
The Post-Kaiser survey examined the breadth and diversity of the electorate to explore the changing shape of a Republican coalition that has become more Southern in its base and more conservative in its views, and yet encompasses which significant disagreements remain over whether confrontation or cooperation with the Democrats is the preferred path for governing.
The study looks, too, at a Democratic Party that, while women make up a clear majority of supporters and grassroots activists have a large voice, is a coalition of groups with divergent views on government regulation of the economy, the size of government, the role of religion in public life and such hot-button social issues as abortion and same-sex marriage.
PARTY AND PERFORMANCE
In some ways, political parties matter less than they once did, but party identification is one of the most reliable indicators of how someone will vote on Election Day. The Post-Kaiser study breaks down the two parties into nine groups of voters: five groups who call themselves Republicans and four who call themselves Democrats.
The Democratic coalition includes a large share of liberal, affluent and mostly secular white voters but also a loyal cadre of African Americans and Latinos who are more religious and more conservative on social issues. The gap between them on social issues remains wide, but they are generally united in advocating a significant role for government.
Partisan polarization once was considered an affliction only of elected officials and political elites. Now it has gone mainstream. Citizens' ties to their political parties are stronger than ever, and passions on issues are intensely felt.
Fourteen years ago, The Post, along with the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, asked people to assess the strength of their allegiance to the parties. At that time, 41 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of Democrats said they considered themselves "strong" partisans. In the new Post-Kaiser survey, those numbers have shot up to 65 and 62 percent, respectively.
One set of answers is particularly revealing: The number of Republicans who feel strongly that the government controls too much of daily life jumped 24 percentage points since the 1998 survey, to 63 percent. The number of Democrats strongly disagreeing with the assertion doubled.
The debates during Obama's presidency over health care, economic stimulus and financial regulatory reform underscore how far apart the parties stand on economic issues and on attitudes about government's role. For example, more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans say regulation of business is necessary to protect the public interest. Most Republicans say regulation does more harm than good.
The two parties are miles apart on whether it is better to have smaller government with fewer services or bigger government with more services. Republicans overwhelmingly say people should take care of themselves; Democrats overwhelmingly say government should do everything possible to improve living standards.
Republicans see deficit reduction as more important than spending money in an effort to create jobs. Democrats believe the opposite.
Divisions over religious and social issues are equally stark. As a whole, the two parties are mirror images of each other on whether organized religious groups should stay out of politics or stand up for their beliefs in the political arena. They are similarly at odds over whether there should be a high wall of separation between church and state and whether government should more actively protect religious heritage.
Both parties contain deeply observant people as well as many who seldom go to church or synagogue or mosque. But in general, a higher percentage of Republicans, by far, are frequent churchgoers. One of the fastest-growing segments of the Democratic Party in recent years has been nonbelievers or infrequent churchgoers.
Big majorities in both parties see tolerance of other's lifestyles as important, but Republicans and Democrats take opposite positions on whether changing mores should affect personal convictions. A majority of Democrats agree with the proposition that as the world changes, people should adjust their morals and values. An even bigger majority of Republicans disagree with that statement, with most saying so strongly. Far more Republicans than Democrats say Americans in general are too tolerant of behavior that once was considered wrong or immoral.
On abortion and gay marriage, the divide between the parties is wide. Twice as many Democrats as Republicans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. The margin between the parties is similarly gaping when it comes to same-sex marriage.
Recent shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin have sparked renewed discussion about gun laws. Over the past two decades, overall support for new restrictions has declined, to the point that today barely more than half of those surveyed favored stricter laws. Republicans overwhelmingly oppose tougher restrictions. Democrats overwhelmingly favor tougher laws, but the president and other party leaders are reluctant to propose them.
By DAN BALZ AND JON COHEN
The Washington Post