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Election confirms deep ideological divide

By Stanley Feldman and Jeanne Zaino

The 2012 presidential election confirmed an unpleasant fact about modern American politics: Americans are exceedingly polarized in their political beliefs. The U.S. electorate in 2012 was deeply divided ideologically -- and it was reflected in their votes for president.

Forty-nine percent of voters in the CBS exit poll want all or part of the 2010 health care law repealed, and 83 percent of them voted for Romney. 44 percent want the health care law left as is or expanded, and 87 percent of them voted for the president.

Voters also were split on the role of government. Fifty-two percent said the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals, while 43 percent said that government should do more to solve problems. Three quarters of the first group voted for Romney, while eight in ten of the second group voted for Mr. Obama.

This ideological division extends to beliefs about the U.S. economic system. Fifty-five percent of voters believe that the economic system favors the wealthy; 71 percent of them voted for Mr. Obama. Thirty-nine percent said that the economic system if fair to most Americans and three-quarters of these voters supported Romney.

It's not just economic issues that divide the American public. Those surveyed in the exit poll split almost evenly when asked if they want their state to legally recognize same-sex marriage: 49 percent said yes and 46 percent said no. Mr. Obama received almost three-quarters of the votes of those who favor same-sex marriage, and Romney won the same fraction of those opposed. Almost eight in ten whites who call themselves evangelical or born-again voted for Romney.

There were also deep geographic differences evident in support for Mr. Obama and his opponent. Mr. Obama won 70 percent of voters living in big cities in the U.S., while Romney got 58 percent of those living in small cities and rural areas. Majorities of big city voters think the government should do more to solve problems, and 63 percent support the 2010 health care law. Fifty-five percent of voters living in small cities and rural areas believe that government is doing too much, and 63 percent want all of some of the health care act repealed.

Both the Obama and Romney campaigns fought hard for the women's vote this year. Yet one of the key stories to emerge from the CBS Exit poll is that women are not one monolithic voting block. While it is true that women favored the president by double digits this year, largely echoing his thirteen point lead among women in 2008, when you look deeper it becomes clear that there is more to this than just gender.

Mr. Obama's support among women becomes clearer when you consider gender and marital status. While non-married women are overwhelmingly supportive of the president, 67 to 31 percent, married women favor Romney by a 10 point margin (54 to 45 percent). This pattern is apparent not just in the national polls, but in many of the swing state polls as well, including Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin among others.

A similar pattern emerges when gender is considered along with race. Whereas Mr. Obama enjoyed overwhelming support among black and Latino women, white women supported Romney, 56-42 percent.

In addition to non-married women, other key components of Mr. Obama's constituency were young people, racial and ethnic minorities. These are the same groups that made up much of Mr. Obama's voting block four years ago. In 2008, for instance, 66 percent of young people age 18-29 supported the president, just six percentage points more than this year. Similarly, in 2008, 95 percent of blacks supported Mr. Obama, compared to 93 percent this election cycle. This pattern is repeated among Hispanics, who in 2008 supported Mr. Obama over John McCain 67-31 percent and this year came out in even larger numbers, 69 to 30 percent.

Despite the similarities between these two elections, Mr. Obama's margin of victory this year is smaller than it was four years ago. This is due primarily the fact that while the president won independents handily in 2008 (52 percent-44 percent). This year independents supported Romney by four points, 49 percent-45 percent. A second factor which contributed to this difference, albeit to a lesser degree, is race. While whites supported McCain in overwhelming numbers (55 percent-43 percent), Romney won whites by even more -- 58 percent-40 percent.

Stanley Feldman is a professor of political science at Stony Brook University; Jeanne Zaino is a professor of political science at Iona College

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