Ideological battles create fireworks but political center will rule, study says

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 26, 2014 


A voter casts his ballot, June 10, 2014 in South Carolina.


— Most voters are unpredictable, frustrated and don’t cling to strong ideologies _ and they have the potential to strongly impact the 2014 political races, according to a new Pew Research Center study released Thursday.

Ideological wings may seem to dominate and even define American politics, but “they make up a minority of the public,” Pew found in the study conducted between January and March. “The center is large and diverse, unified by frustration with politics and little else.”

So far, ideological battles have seized the spotlight. The 2014 primary season’s most noticed contests have been Republican battles where a diehard conservative has challenged a less doctrinaire incumbent. That season is now winding down. General election contests are becoming the focal point, and in most cases, winning close races usually depends on wooing the center.

It won’t be easy, according to Pew, a nonpartisan think tank that studies social issues, trends and demographics.

“Most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses,” Pew found, “and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it.”

The problem for political campaigns is that these voters can be hard to pinpoint and harder to figure. Pew called them “a combination of groups each with their own mix of political values” with “many distinct voices . . . often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and right.”

Pew broke the American electorate into eight groups. On the right are what it calls the “steadfast conservatives” and “business conservatives.” Solid liberals dominate the left. These groups are the most engaged, and though they comprise 36 percent of the public, they account for 43 percent of registered voters.

Less partisan and less predictable are:

_ “Young outsiders,” who tend to hold conservative views about government’s role but are open on social issues. They tend to dislike both parties.

_ “Hard-pressed skeptics,” who are pessimistic, have financial difficulties and largely voted for President Barack Obama. But many have since soured on him.

_ “Next generation left,” who are younger and more liberal on social issues, such as homosexuality. But they wary of the cost of social programs.

_ “Faith and family left,” who tend to back government programs but are very religious and “uncomfortable with the pace of societal change.”

_ “Bystanders,” who acccount for 10 percent of the public, remain “on the sidelines of the political process” and are not registered to vote.

But even among the ideological groups, there are differences _ a big reason Republicans are split.

Steadfast conservatives have strong opinions about homosexuality _ three out of four said society should discourage it _ as well as immigration and other issues. Business conservatives are more flexible. Only 31 percent said society should discourage homosexuality, and nearly one in three favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The steadfast conservatives tend to be wary of big business, and the schism between the two groups has been apparent in a series of Republican primaries, as in Mississippi on Tuesday when Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., with strong business community support, edged challenger Chris McDaniel, a tea party favorite.

The next big GOP establishment vs. tea party tests come the week of Aug. 5.

Incumbent Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and tea party favorite Milton Wolf, a physician, vie for the Republican Senate nomination, and Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr, backed by staunch conservatives, faces Sen. Lamar Alexander in that state’s Republican primary. Polls have shown Roberts and Alexander with huge leads.

Liberals have divisions, too. The faith and family left tends to have strong religious convictions and more conservative views on social issues. Nine of 10 agreed “it is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values.”

The next generation left, generally those under 40, are usually more individualistic about opportunities for self-advancement, even as they are “generally positive about what government can do.” But, said Pew, “they balk at the costs of expanding the social safety net.”

The true swing voters are what Pew dubbed the young outsiders and the hard-pressed skeptics.

“Both groups have weak partisan leanings,” Pew said. “Whether many will show up at the polls is an open question.”

The Republicans’ best bet is to woo the young outsiders. Nearly half are under 40, and Pew found they “share deep opposition to increased government spending on social programs.”

The Republicans’ problem is that this group overwhelming believes society should accept homosexuality, marijuana should be legal and stricter environmental laws are worth the cost. Party Chairman Reince Priebus has pushed hard to make the party more inclusive, and wooing this group could become a big test.

The other wild card, the hard-pressed skeptics, seem to be more of an opportunity for Democrats. They are the most financially strapped group and voted 65 percent to 25 percent for President Barack Obama in 2012.

They’ve since cooled on Obama, as only 44 percent now approve of the job he’s doing. Forty percent approve of the Affordable Care Act. They lean Democratic because “even though they take a dim view of government performance,” Pew said, “66 percent . . . say the government should do more for the needy even if it means adding to the debt.”

Email:; Twitter: @lightmandavid.

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