WASHINGTON — So accustomed are we to highlighting the polarized nature of our politics that we often forget how many Americans decline to be painted in bright reds or bright blues. Among us, there are pinks and turquoises and even purples. And these voters will matter a great deal to the elections in 2016 and beyond.
To understand a rather strange moment during which Donald Trump exercises a hypnotic control over the media (I’m as guilty as the next person), it’s important to keep two seemingly contradictory ideas in our heads at the same time.
On the one hand, polarization is real. It’s not an invention of the elites. The sharp partisan divide affects a majority of the country, and it’s especially powerful among Americans most likely to vote and to be active in politics.
On the other hand, a very large share of us (including some staunch Democrats and Republicans) hold nuanced views on many questions. There are a lot of “yes, but” and “both/and” voters out there.
Since elections are won by a combination of mobilizing committed partisans and persuading the now relatively small number of moveable voters, forgetting either of these realities can be politically fatal.
Taken together, three studies published last week brought home the subtleties of our collective attitudes.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 52 percent of Americans support the Supreme Court’s recent ruling legalizing same-sex marriage while 44 percent oppose it. There is no question that the long-term trend in opinion is dramatically in favor of marriage equality and of gay and lesbian rights.
But when asked how they felt about “the country’s overall direction on social issues these days,” a majority expressed discomfort: 42 percent were “strongly uncomfortable,” 21 percent were “somewhat uncomfortable,” 21 percent were “somewhat comfortable,” and 14 percent were “strongly comfortable.”
Peyton Craighill, the Post‘s polling director, provided me with additional detail. It’s clear that the “strongly uncomfortable” group is, compared to the country as a whole, disproportionately older, more conservative, and more Republican.
The group to watch: the “somewhat uncomfortable”s. They are significantly more likely to describe themselves as politically moderate and include a disproportionate number of African-Americans and Latinos. These Americans cannot be classified as hostile to changes on “social issues” — a term that, it should be said, is open to a variety of interpretations — but they do need reassurance. There are lessons here for both liberals (further social progress requires sensitivity to those whose feelings are torn) and conservatives (a hard-line insistence on rolling back social change will turn off large numbers of Americans).
Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center released findings that should alarm Republicans. Its survey found that only 32 percent of Americans had a favorable view of the Republican Party — down 9 points since January — while 60 percent had an unfavorable view. For Democrats, the numbers were 48 percent favorable (up 2 points) and 47 percent unfavorable.
The 16-point favorability gap shows what the GOP is up against, and why Hillary Clinton has maintained a lead in the national polls — by 6 points over Jeb Bush in the latest Post/ABC News poll, for example.
And when Pew broke down these numbers at my request, the polarization in the electorate across so many demographic lines was sharp: Those with favorable opinions about of the Republicans were overwhelmingly white (72 percent) and tilted conservative (52 percent). Those favorable toward the Democrats were more racially and ethnically diverse (only 55 percent white) and less likely to be conservative (20 percent).
And a hint about the source of Trump’s surge: Among the 26 percent who see both parties unfavorably, conservatives outnumbered liberals by almost 3-to-1.
But the third study, a joint product of the Democratic Strategist website and Washington Monthly magazine, points to the work Democrats need to do with white working-class voters.
One key finding, from pollster Stan Greenberg: Such voters are “open to an expansive Democratic economic agenda” but “are only ready to listen when they think that Democrats understand their deeply held belief that politics has been corrupted and government has failed.” This calls for not only “populist measures to reduce the control of big money and corruption” but also, as Mark Schmitt of the New America Foundation argued, “high-profile efforts to show that government can be innovative, accessible and responsive.”
This ambivalent feeling about government is the most important “yes, but” impulse in the American electorate, and the party that masters this blend of hope and skepticism will win the 2016 election.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.
Image: Cartogram showing results of the 2012 general election (via), shaded to indicate percentage of red (Republican) and blue (Democratic) votes by county, and scaled to reflect population size.