Monday, July 7, 2014

VOP study — A Not So Divided America


A cornerstone of democracy is the idea that elected representatives to some extent represent the views of their constituents. Thus, the policy conflicts between Democratic and Republican Members of Congress are often assumed to mirror differences in public attitudes in the districts or states that they represent. If so, the views of people in "red" districts or states would presumably be distinctly different from views of people in "blue" districts or states on policy issues. But is this true?

Much has been written recently about the growing partisan polarization that can be seen in response to ideological questions. One might expect this to lead to substantial differences between red and blue districts and states on policy prescriptive questions—i.e. concrete questions about what the government should actually do on specific policy issues. However, if this were not the case—and differences between red and blue districts and states on policy questions are minor—it would suggest that it is unlikely that polarization in the public is driving the polarization on policy issues in Congress; and that the drivers may lie in other sources of influence on Congress.

In light of these questions, we conducted a study that compared the responses to policy prescriptive poll questions of people who live in "red" districts or states to those who live in "blue" districts or states. 


Selection of Source Surveys: We first sought out surveys that provided data showing the Congressional district in which each respondent resided. We found 14 different surveys with datasets that included information about the respondents' congressional districts. We also included 10 surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center and several major media outlets that only provided state-level breakouts. The surveys were conducted from 2008 through 2013. 

Selection of Poll Questions: From these surveys we selected 388 questions on a wide range of policy issues. Questions were limited to those that were policy-prescriptive: i.e., they asked respondents to weigh in on a policy choice the government could make or had made. The overwhelming majority of 339 questions were divided by districts, while 49 were divided by states.

Key Findings

1. Comparing the views of people who live in red Congressional districts or states to those of people who live in blue Congressional districts or states, across 388 questions, majorities or pluralities took opposing positions in about one out of thirty cases (just 3.6 percent of the time). In two out of three cases there were no statistical differences.

2. The few questions for which views were polarized between red and blue districts or states dealt with policy topics that are familiar, high-profile, 'hot-button' partisan issues. However, for all of these topics there were also other questions that did not elicit polarized responses between red and blue districts or states.

3. There were numerous areas associated with high-profile partisan conflict in which no questions appeared where people in red districts/states and blue districts/states took polarized positions.

4. Hearing strongly-stated arguments for and against a policy position, ones that respondents might have recognized as characteristic of partisan ideology, did not subsequently increase the incidence of polarization between red and blue districts on policy-prescriptive questions.

5. In the current environment, the parties have taken strong positions on the budget—with Republican members of Congress strongly opposing revenue increases and Democrats strongly opposing cuts to entitlements. However, when respondents were asked to make up their own federal budget, there were only slight differences between respondents in red and blue districts. In both cases majorities both raised revenues and trimmed entitlements.
Conducted by Program for Public Consultation: A Joint Program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland


Dan Lynch said...

"Three of these topics were hot-button” topics that are famously controversial—gay and lesbian issues, abortion, and Second Amendment issues relating to gun ownership—and these accounted for 11 out of the 14 polarized questions."

As I commented when the Pew report came out a few weeks ago claiming America was more divided than ever, Pew's questions were mostly about divisive social issues. If they had asked different questions, they would have got different answers.

Both parties use social issues to keep the 99% fighting among themselves. The women's contraception debate is just the latest example -- it riles people up but has absolutely no practical significance since contraception is not expensive and there are other sources of free or low cost contraception. I've never heard of a single case of someone filing bankruptcy due to running up a big contraception bill.

Tom Hickey said...

Right, Dan. Polls depend on the questions and how they are framed. It's pretty simple to get the desired answers if one has an agenda, just like getting the desired result from a model by using the right assumptions.

The divide and conquer strategy has been one of the most successful in distracting the electorate from what is actually important by emphasizing irrelevant wedge issues. Since the elite of both parties are representing the donor class, there's seldom a significant challenge of the status quo.

Now it does seem that a lot of the divisiveness has come as a result of the GOP pandering to the ultra-right to survive primary challenges. That is driving the Overton window further rightward and Democratic elite have positioned themselves as center right to "triangulate."

There is a bit of polarization growing on the left due to the more populist challenge that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are presenting, with HRC having to moderate her position somewhat apparently on account of it.

So there is some elite v. populist action in the making on the left, too.

The elite-populist dynamic may increase in the general of 2016, with a fight for the nomination in both parties.

Ryan Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
peterc said...

"In both cases majorities both raised revenues and trimmed entitlements."

LOL. So despite claims to the contrary, we DON'T QUITE get the politicians we deserve.

Thank f*** for that. :)

Matt Franko said...

Peter imo this comes straight out of the "we're out of money!" falsehood and is why this falsehood (to me) is the most important thing to try to overturn at this point...

You can see here it has a majority of people basically advocating against their own interests with the "cut entitlements" responses...


peterc said...

Yep. Completely agree, Matt. It doesn't matter how desirable somebody might think sweeping policy or institutional changes might be -- if they're convinced such options are "impossible" due to "lack of money" they will reluctantly accept the TINA lie.