Event Summary: Surveying Americans’ Political Values

November 5, 2003

A year before Election Day, Americans are politically divided and increasingly polarized in their beliefs, according to a new survey of political attitudes and values released today by the Pew Research Center at a Brookings Press Briefing at the Brookings Institution.

The survey was conducted in the summer and the fall, and was based on more than 4,000 interviews in which individuals were asked 96 questions on various topics, including foreign policy, civil liberties, race, religion, and social values.

The data indicated that only two years after the patriotic swell that followed September 11th, a political, partisan gap divides most Americans, and a contentious political atmosphere has developed, similar to the one in 1994 when Republicans took control of the Congress in reaction to the leadership and policies of the Clinton administration.

On average, Republicans and Democrats have a 17% difference in political attitudes, the largest gap since 1987, when the Pew Research Center began its surveys. 34% of registered voters are affiliated with the Democratic Party, as compared with 33% for the Republicans. However, Republicans have made significant gains in party affiliation following September 11th, including in crucial swing states such as Michigan, where Republicans saw a 9% gain in the past two years, and Arkansas (15%). Conversely, Democratic affiliation declined since September 11th.

Despite the gains made by the Republican party, subsequent military decisions have expanded the gap between the two parties on the issue of national security. While 82% of Republicans support the Bush administration’s doctrine of preemptive strikes, only 52% of Democrats support the policy. Additionally, 69% of Republicans believe that military strength is essential to the preservation of peace, compared with 44% of Democrats.

“We are, in real political terms,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Mann, “largely back to where we were on September 10th…On the policies that engage the efforts of Congress and the President, there are profoundly different views depending on whether you are a Democrat or a Republican.”

Such disparity can be seen on the issue of financial security. Republicans remain as financially content as they were four years ago, but Democrats and independents share a more negative view of their well-being. Religious commitment, which was a major factor in the 2000 election, divides the electorate more than at anytime in the past sixteen years, with far more Republicans claiming they have a personal religious commitment than Democrats or independents.

The survey addresses the upcoming election, and Americans are evenly split on the question of whether or not they would vote for Bush or an unnamed Democrat.

“One year from the election, we’re still a long way out,” said Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. “There is no question that Republicans have made progress because of President Bush’s popularity over this period of time. But the trends are perhaps imperiled by rising discontent with the economy, President Bush’s handling of it, and his handling of the situation in Iraq…There’s the potential for there to be a very, very close race.”

“Don’t look for any major realignment in this upcoming election,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Mann. “Don’t look for any substantial move from our 50-50 politics.”

“The jury is still out on this election,” said Mann.