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Pew Report: Political Opinion More Complex Than Left And Right

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WASHINGTON -- When discussing political opinions, it's all too easy to boil sentiments down to left, right, and the always nebulous swing voter. But a new report published Wednesday shows opinion within political groups can be as different as between them.

The study is the latest release from the Political Typology survey, which is conducted every six years or so by the Pew Research Center. The survey is intended to illustrate the complexities of American political opinion.

To do so, it divides respondents into nine broad types: two that generally identify as Republicans, three as Democrats, three as independents, and one as so-called Bystanders. The last group, which mostly self-identified as independents, were given that label because they largely don't participate in politics. (You can see in which group you'd be placed using Pew's typology quiz.)

As the Pew report notes, the wide disparities in opinion within the many different groups pose a particular challenge for the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties.

"The challenge is not only one of appeasing ideological and moderate 'wings' within their coalitions, but rather holding together remarkably disparate groups, many of whom have strong disagreements with core principles that have defined each party’s political character in recent years," the report's authors explain.

One of the most important findings demonstrated by the survey is that voters who tend to self-identify as independents can be divided into three distinct categories. None of these fit perfectly into the typical left-right paradigm. As the table below demonstrates, the three groups of independents hold a wide range of positions on the issues.

These groups' opinions and voting patterns often lean more towards one party or the other than the common characterization of independents as swing voters would seem to suggest.

For example, while 67 percent of Libertarians self-identify as independents, when pressed, 77 percent of them either said they were Republicans or said they leaned towards the Republican Party. Furthermore, Libertarians voted for McCain over Obama by a 39 percentage point margin in 2008 and for Republican candidates over Democratic one by a 54 percentage point margin in 2010.

Similarly, the largely conservative but independent-identifying Disaffecteds are 60 percent Republican when leaners are included. This group voted for McCain in 2008 and Republicans in 2010 by 16- and 38-percentage-point margins, respectively.

On the other end of the independents spectrum, the group Pew identifies as Post-Moderns leans more towards the Democratic Party. Though 67 percent initially identify as independents, 58 percent were found to be Democrats or Democratic leaners. They voted for Obama by a 52 percentage point margin in 2008 and for Democrats by a 26 percentage point margin in 2010.

While all three groups of independents voted for 2010 Republicans candidates in greater numbers than they had voted for McCain in 2008, New Coalition Democrats and Main Street Republicans experienced similar swings.

The different groups of independents are particularly diverse in their opinions, but intra-party divisions are also apparent. In particular, questions about business profits and environmental laws divided both Republican and Democratic groups.

Other issues help unite one party and divide another. For example, 68 percent of Staunch Conservatives and 60 percent of Main Street Republicans said they thought that "immigrants today are a burden on our country." On the other hand, 82 percent of Solid Liberals and 70 percent of New Coalition Democrats but only 13 percent of Hard-Pressed Democrats said they thought that "immigrants today strengthen our country."

As Mark Blumenthal noted about Pew's previous typology report in 2005, the survey "is not meant as a way to keep score, to tell us who is ahead or behind in the political wars," but is "more useful in understanding the undercurrents of opinion at work beneath the current party ID or vote preference numbers." The full report contains far more detail on the different strains of public opinion and is worth a read for anyone interested in a more complex breakdown of the electorate than is typically available from routine polls.

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