Would it surprise you to learn that, depending on the poll and specific questions asked, between a quarter and a third of Democrats identify their views on abortion as “pro-life”? And that about a quarter of Republicans identify themselves as “pro-choice” on the issue?
There is no question that politics in North Carolina and the nation as a whole has become more polarized. That is, politicians and voters within each of the major parties agree with each other more on major issues than in, say, the 1970s and 1980s, when there was a large number of “boll weevil Democrats” from the South and Midwest whose voting records were often conservative, as well as a substantial number of “gypsy moth” Republicans from the Northeast or Pacific coast whose voting records were moderate to liberal.
Furthermore, the share of voters who truly swing back and forth between the two parties from election to election is closer to 10 percent today than to the 20 percent or even 30 percent who were swing voters in past eras. (This is true despite increases in the share of voters who are unaffiliated, by the way, because most of them are reliable Democrat or Republican voters in all but name.)
But to say that today’s politics is more polarized in a partisan sense is not to say there aren’t still tensions within each party on some issues. Abortion is a good example. Another is the bundle of issues related to the House Bill 2 dispute here in North Carolina. According to a recent Gallup survey, when asked if “new civil rights laws are needed to reduce discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people,” 30 percent of Democrats said no and 27 percent of Republicans said yes.
Why would any voters with traditionally conservative views on social issues vote for Democrats most of the time? Why would their ideological opposites vote for Republicans? Because they care about a wide variety of issues, as do most voters, and place a higher priority on matters about which they and their party are in agreement. In recent years, for instance, Gallup has found that only about 15 percent to 20 percent of voters say they will only vote for candidates whose views on abortion are consistent with theirs.
The two parties also have internal disagreements about economic issues such as taxes, regulation, and government spending. But the share of those dissenting from the party line tends to be smaller than on social issues, although again it sometimes depends on the wording of the question. More to the point, when it comes to making electoral choices, most voters appear to prioritize economic issues above social issues.
Let me be more specific to North Carolina. The statewide poll conducted last month by Elon University researchers included two questions, adapted from Gallup, that tested voter beliefs about the proper size of government and whether it should promote traditional values. From the responses, Elon created a typology of North Carolina voters comprising four groups — conservatives, liberals, populists, and libertarians — plus a group of about 16 percent who either declined to answer a question or quibbled with its wording.
Conservatives think government is too big and that it should promote traditional values. Liberals reverse that, thinking government should do more while not promoting any particular set of values. Not surprisingly, most conservatives are reliable Republicans and liberals are even more reliably Democratic.
But libertarians, who mix fiscal conservatism with a restrained view of government’s role in social policy, are more Republican than Democratic in party preference. Populists, with the opposite mix of views, are closely divided between the two parties, although drilling down further would probably reveal that white populists currently lean Republican while black and Hispanic populists usually vote Democratic.
For some activists on both sides of social-policy questions, this lack of party unanimity is a source of frustration. But they can’t just wish it away. And in my view, at least some of the resulting tensions are creative, not destructive.
John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.