Voters Seeing Less Blue, Less Red

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By Anthony Salvanto, CBS News' manager of surveys

There's now a bit of optimism in the country that there will be cooperation in Washington. Fifty percent in the latest CBS News poll think Democrats and the president will work together, outnumbering the 40 percent who think they won't. For those expecting cooperation, it's probably not because the politicians say it will happen – they usually say that after an election – but maybe because last week's results were yet another reminder that so many Americans simply don't follow the "Red vs. Blue," "Divided America" playbook. Maybe they hope the 110th Congress won't either.

Not only did moderates vote for Democrats last week, but perhaps just as importantly going forward, moderates Democrats outnumbered liberals among the party's voters by 51 percent to 38 percent, according to CBS News exit polls. (The same was true of Democrats in 2004, though this time their party is called on to govern.) That mix had a lot to do with the fact that the vaunted red-blue lines didn't define the results in this election. Senate control changed hands due to wins by moderate Democratic candidates in "red" states like Montana and Virginia, which President Bush won in 2004 by 20 and 9 points, respectively. In fact, four of the six Senate turnovers were in states Mr. Bush won in '04. In the House, Democrats owe their new majority primarily to turnovers in districts inside blue states, but scored many wins in red states like Indiana and Arizona, too.

As they typically do in general elections, self-described moderates (47 percent of the electorate) outdistanced both conservatives (32 percent) and liberals (20 percent) last week, and were a slightly higher proportion of the electorate than in 2004. Though the exit polls didn't measure strength of ideology, CBS News polls from earlier this year did, and strong ideologues were relatively uncommon: less than one in five Americans considers themselves to be one. That includes the one in 20 who call themselves "very liberal," and the one in ten who say they're "very conservative." Most who subscribe to an ideology describe themselves as only "somewhat" liberal or "somewhat" conservative.

Cooperation, though, is about more than just deferring to the majority. It demands that opposing sides respect each other's positions. Among the public, there is some of that respect. Earlier this year, our CBS News polls asked America's liberals whether they thought conservatives' beliefs and ideas, even if they disagreed with them, were reasonable or unreasonable. By 60 percent to 32 percent, a striking 2-to-1 margin, liberals said conservatives' views were reasonable. Half of conservatives, in turn, said the same of liberals' views. All told, more than half of ideological Americans – those who call themselves either liberal or conservative – put a positive characterization on the views of their opponents.

There is also sense, among many in the public, that their fellow citizens on the other side of the ideological spectrum share common values and goals. In the "culture war" view of the country's politics, of course, political and policy choices are driven by deep differences in lifestyles, values and goals. Yet in a CBS News poll last spring, a sizeable 41% of conservatives said they thought liberals shared the other values and goals in life as they did, even though they disagreed on politics. And 52% of liberals said the same about conservatives. Those are hardly the kind of numbers one might expect from a public supposedly consumed by a "culture war." So while many Americans do look across politics' ideological divide and see people different from themselves in fundamental ways, there are also plenty who see commonalities that extend beyond politics.

This year, some "culture war" issues took a backseat on Election Day, especially among moderates. Nationally, a majority of voters (57 percent) did say "values issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion" were extremely or very important in their House votes, but those concerns were outranked by the war in Iraq (67 percent), the economy (82 percent), terrorism (72 percent) and corruption in government (74 percent). Among moderates, this was especially true: fewer than half of them gave those particular "values" issues high importance.

Still, there is no guarantee that moderation and compromise are really going to take hold on Capitol Hill, no matter what the electorate wants. For all the hype surrounding the House seats that changed hands, hundreds more races were never even real contests. Various Congress-watchers have noted that redistricting has made a lot of seats so safe for members on both sides that the incentive to move to the center has gone. And as political scientist Morris Fiorina points out in his book Culture War?, people have been offered polarizing choices on issues for years, by leaders who are often more polarized than they are, despite the large number of people who hold moderate positions.

Perhaps one of the determining factors for cooperation now will be whether the people – specifically, those moderates and no-so-strong ideologues – stay involved in the process. In those questions on whether liberals thought conservatives shared basic values and vice-versa, those who thought the other side did share their values did not pay as much attention to politics. Those who saw the other side as unreasonable or not sharing other values tended to be stronger ideologues, and said they paid more attention.

So for those who want to see more cooperation in Washington, there is, in that finding, a challenge going forward into 2007. In politics, it's often the people paying attention who get attention paid to them.

By Anthony Salvanto
  • Joel Roberts

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