Polarized Polls

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By Kathy Frankovic, CBS News' director of surveys.

Americans answer poll questions differently than they did 20 years ago. We are more conscious of partisan differences, and when people answer poll questions about political and social issues they answer in a way that suggests they know what's expected of them.

In June 1992, then-President George H.W. Bush had a 34 percent approval rating. Not surprisingly, Republicans liked him more than Democrats did. Fifty-five percent of Republicans approved of the way he was doing his job; 18 percent of Democrats did — a difference of 37 percentage points in the approval rating.

Fourteen years later, in 2006, the current President Bush also had a 34 percent approval rating, but that rating was both higher among Republicans and lower among Democrats. Seventy-four percent of Republicans approved of how George W. Bush was handling his job, while only 6 percent of Democrats did. That's a 68 point difference — nearly 30 points HIGHER than the partisan spread for his father!

This partisan divide is common in polls these days – and not just on questions about the administration and its leaders. The partisan divide shows up on almost any policy issue that can be associated with the Republican administration or the Democratic Congress.

The war in Iraq is an important example. In 1991, during the highly popular Persian Gulf War, the difference in support for the war between Republicans and Democrats was 25 points (84 percent of Republicans thought the U.S. did the right thing to get involved in the war, as did 59 percent of Democrats). At the start of the 2003 Iraq War, 87 percent of Republicans supported military action, but only 50 percent of Democrats did — a difference of 37 points. Now the difference is even more striking. In the latest CBS News polls, there are differences of 50 points or more in how Republicans and Democrats view the war in Iraq. (There are some issues where the parties aren't polarized — immigration may be one of them.)

Partisanship matters more today to what people think than it has at any time in my recent memory. In 2004, nearly 90 percent of Republicans voted for George W. Bush, while nearly 80 percent of self-identified Democrats voted for John Kerry — a wider partisan difference than in the previous three presidential elections. The public no longer gives an incumbent president of the opposing party the benefit of the doubt — except in times of enormous crisis, like the attacks of September 11, 2001, when even Democrats overwhelmingly approved of the way George W. Bush was handling his job. Bill Clinton experienced the support of a majority of Republicans only in February 1998, immediately following the charges that he had inappropriate sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky — a self-induced crisis if there ever was one!

Except for that one instance, Clinton's presidency marks the start of the recent partisan polarization. After six months of the Clinton presidency, there was a 40-point gap in his approval rating between Republicans and Democrats. It grew throughout his first term. By June 1994, it was 43 points. A year after that, it was 48 points.

An individual's partisanship changes — many states don't have party registration — so there is no "census" count for the number of Republicans and Democrats in this country. In our polls, we ask people to tell us what they call themselves. The wording of that question has remained essentially the same since its use in academic research in the 1950's. "Generally speaking, do you usually consider yourself a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or what?" About two-thirds of Americans today will say they consider themselves either a Republican or a Democrat.

Political scientists used to talk about the need for "responsible" political parties — that the two parties should stand for something and not be just a collection of people with diverse views who gather together for political gain. And indeed, that has happened. Parties have become more "responsible" in recent years — and less diverse. Republicans have become more conservative, Democrats more liberal. People have changed parties: In a CBS News/New York Times Poll taken last March, one in four of today's Republicans and Democrats say they once thought of themselves the other way.

But the more "responsible" parties have isolated many partisans. Many Americans don't spend much time with people who think differently than they do: Republicans and Democrats often live in different neighborhoods; there is a big city, small town difference; Americans who attend religious services regularly vote differently from those who don't attend at all. No Northeast state voted for Bush in 2004, and no Southern state voted for Kerry.

Partisan leaders in the media have tended to reinforce those differences, and Americans seem to have caught on to what it means, now, to be a Republican or a Democrat. Polarized parties have given us increasingly polarized respondents.
By Kathy Frankovic
MMVII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved
  • Vaughn Ververs

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