Party Lines Don’t Reflect American People

Despite the popular picture of states divided by red and blue lines, researchers found that most citizens share a diverse range of liberal and conservative beliefs.
by | June 9, 2011

The United States is a nation divided by red and blue, a country split by party factions and a democracy on the edge of civil war. At least that's part of the popular picture of American politics.

It's a picture that's overblown political hype, a new study says. It's a picture that doesn't reflect how most people really feel. Beyond the legislatures -- where battles over budget cuts rein -- the so-called red and blue states are closer to shades of purple, say researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Brigham Young University.

"It's good for us to understand the country is not made up of two warring campaigns," Jeremy Pope, assistant professor of political science at BYU and a research fellow with the school's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, told the Salt Lake City Deseret News.

For instance, a random person from a red state will have a 50/50 chance of being more liberal on political issues compared with a random person of a blue state. What are the odds that a red state citizen would score more liberal than a blue state citizen? The answer is 46 percent on economic issues and 51 percent on social issues, according to the paper.

For the study, the researchers used Utah as a red state Utah and New York for blue. It would work just as well with any two states viewed as opposite, said Jeremy Pope [...]. "I could do it with Massachusetts and Idaho, for example," he said, and results would be the same: "The actual opinions of people are going to overlap much more.... No state has a really homogenous population."

Even with New York and Utah, considered polar opposites on the liberal-conservative scale, the researchers calculated that 77 percent of voters in the two states have common ground for social policy and 69 percent for economic issues.

So while there's little chance that President Obama would carry an election in Utah, for instance, the state still has a complicated population that includes really conservative and moderately conservative and moderately liberal and really liberal citizens. "And even the conservatives are not always as conservative as you might think," Pope said.

The elected officials on the state and "even more on the national level," on the other hand, "tend to be highly polarized, disparate groups that don't agree on anything," Pope said. "....Regular voters are not highly ideological in the way political parties are."

What does all this mean?

For one, studies such as these should help shred stereotypes that tie entire states to single political stances. But more than that, this research highlights the gap between political parties and the people. Overall, partisan polarization doesn't trickle down to the citizenship. If the average citizen has a set of ideologies that cover an entire spectrum, can a representative government truly exist? Can public officials tangled in party lines honestly be the absolute voice for a patchwork of constituents?

With these questions in mind, it's easy to see why a so-called blue state could back a conservative leader and vice versa. It's also easy to see how the public can feel neglected in a long-distance relationship with politicians. In a country divided by red- and blue-shaded politics, people who think purple just want to feel understood.