Even in a polarized era, deep divisions in both partisan coalitions
Pew Research Center conducted this study to learn more about the complexity of the current political environment. While partisanship remains the dominant factor in politics, we sought to identify the fissures within both partisan coalitions. We did this by creating a political typology, which classifies the public into nine distinct groups based on their political values and attitudes. To learn more about the political typology, including its history and the statistical methods used to create the typology, see “Behind Pew Research Center’s 2021 Political Typology.”
The study is primarily based on a survey of 10,221 adults conducted on Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel (ATP) from July 8-18, 2021; it also draws from several additional interviews with these respondents conducted since January 2020 (for more on the surveys used for analysis, see Appendix B and the detailed tables.
Everyone who took part in this survey is a member of the ATP, an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
Partisan polarization remains the dominant, seemingly unalterable condition of American politics. Republicans and Democrats agree on very little – and when they do, it often is in the shared belief that they have little in common.
Yet the gulf that separates Republicans and Democrats sometimes obscures the divisions and diversity of views that exist within both partisan coalitions – and the fact that many Americans do not fit easily into either one.
Republicans are divided on some principles long associated with the GOP: an affinity for businesses and corporations, support for low taxes and opposition to abortion. Democrats face substantial internal differences as well – some that are long-standing, such as on the importance of religion in society, others more recent. For example, while Democrats widely share the goal of combating racial inequality in the United States, they differ on whether systemic change is required to achieve that goal.
These intraparty disagreements present multiple challenges for both parties: They complicate the already difficult task of governing in a divided nation. In addition, to succeed politically, the parties must maintain the loyalty of highly politically engaged, more ideological voters, while also attracting support among less engaged voters – many of them younger – with weaker partisan ties.
Pew Research Center’s new political typology provides a road map to today’s fractured political landscape. It segments the public into nine distinct groups, based on an analysis of their attitudes and values. The study is primarily based on a survey of 10,221 adults conducted July 8-18, 2021; it also draws from several additional interviews with these respondents conducted since January 2020.
This is the Center’s eighth political typology since 1987, but it differs from earlier such studies in several important ways. It is the first typology conducted on Pew Research Center’s nationally representative American Trends Panel, which provides the benefit of a large sample size and the ability to include a wealth of other political data for the analysis, including the Center’s validated voter study.
The four Democratic-oriented typology groups highlight the party’s racial and ethnic diversity, as well as the unwieldy nature of the current Democratic coalition. (For complete descriptions of all nine typology groups see Chapters 3-11; for profiles of the Democratic and Republican coalitions see Chapters 1 and 2 of this report.)
They include two very different groups of liberal Democrats: Progressive Left and Establishment Liberals. Progressive Left, the only majority White, non-Hispanic group of Democrats, have very liberal views on virtually every issue and support far-reaching changes to address racial injustice and expand the social safety net. Establishment Liberals, while just as liberal in many ways as Progressive Left, are far less persuaded of the need for sweeping change.
Two other Democratic-aligned groups could not be more different from each other, both demographically and in their relationship to the party. Democratic Mainstays, the largest Democratic-oriented group, as well as the oldest on average, are unshakeable Democratic loyalists and have a moderate tilt on some issues. Outsider Left, the youngest typology group, voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden a year ago and are very liberal in most of their views, but they are deeply frustrated with the political system – including the Democratic Party and its leaders.
The four Republican-oriented groups include three groups of conservatives: Faith and Flag Conservatives are intensely conservative in all realms; they are far more likely than all other typology groups to say government policies should support religious values and that compromise in politics is just “selling out on what you believe in.” Committed Conservatives also express conservative views across the board, but with a somewhat softer edge, particularly on issues of immigration and America’s place in the world. Populist Right, who have less formal education than most other typology groups and are among the most likely to live in rural areas, are highly critical of both immigrants and major U.S. corporations.
Ambivalent Right, the youngest and least conservative GOP-aligned group, hold conservative views about the size of government, the economic system and issues of race and gender. But they are the only group on the political right in which majorities favor legal abortion and say marijuana should be legal for recreational and medical use. They are also distinct in their views about Donald Trump – while a majority voted for him in 2020, most say they would prefer he not continue to be a major political figure.
The only typology group without a clear partisan orientation – Stressed Sideliners – also is the group with the lowest level of political engagement. Stressed Sideliners, who make up 15% of the public but constituted just 10% of voters in 2020, have a mix of conservative and liberal views but are largely defined by their minimal interest in politics.
Here are the main findings from the new political typology:
Racial injustice remains a dividing line in U.S. politics. Perhaps no issue is more divisive than racial injustice in the U.S. Among the four Republican-oriented typology groups, no more than about a quarter say a lot more needs to be done to ensure equal rights for all Americans regardless of their racial or ethnic background; by comparison, no fewer than about three-quarters of any Democratic group say a lot more needs to be done to achieve this goal. However, Democrats differ over whether the changes to ensure equal rights for all can be achieved by working within the current system, or whether most laws and institutions need to be completely rebuilt. Progressive Left and Outsider Left are far more likely than the two other Democratic groups to say systemic change is needed to combat racial bias.
Democrats prefer bigger government – but how big? There are much bigger divides between parties than within them on opinions about the size of government. Democratic-aligned groups overwhelmingly prefer a bigger government providing more services; GOP groups, by similar margins, favor smaller government. But when asked if government services should be greatly expanded from current levels, Democrats are divided: A clear majority of Progressive Left (63%) favor greatly expanding government services, compared with about a third in other Democratic-oriented groups.
Economic policy – including taxes – divides the GOP. As noted, Populist Right diverge sharply from traditional GOP positions with their very negative views of corporations; just 17% say most corporations make a fair profit, which places this conservative group much closer to Democratic groups than to their Republican counterparts. And a majority of Populist Right (56%) favor raising taxes on household incomes above $400,000, as do 42% of Ambivalent Right (and substantial majorities in all Democratic-aligned groups).
Republicans’ complicated views of Trump. The Republican-oriented typology groups each supported Trump by wide margins in 2020. Yet the survey shows substantial differences among GOP groups over Trump’s future political role. In two of the four groups – Faith and Flag Conservatives and Populist Right – majorities want Trump to remain a major political figure and run for president again in 2024. And only among Populist Right does a clear plurality view Trump as the best president of the past 40 years. Among other Republican-aligned groups, more either view Ronald Reagan as the best recent president (Committed Conservatives, Ambivalent Right), or are divided between Reagan and Trump (Faith and Flag Conservatives).
Stark differences among typology groups on U.S. global standing. When asked whether the U.S. is superior to all other countries, it is among the greatest countries, or there are other countries that are better, there is relative agreement across six of nine typology groups: About half or more in this very ideologically mixed set of groups – including Establishment Liberals and Populist Right – say the U.S. is among the greatest countries in the world. Faith and Flag Conservatives are the only group in which a majority (69%) says the U.S. stands above all other countries. Conversely, Progressive Left (75%) and Outsider Left (63%) are the only typology groups in which majorities say there are other countries better than the U.S.
Is there a ‘middle’ in politics today? Surveys by Pew Research Center and other national polling organizations have found broad support, in principle, for a third major political party. Yet the typology study finds that the three groups with the largest shares of self-identified independents (most of whom lean toward a party) – Stressed Sideliners, Outsider Left and Ambivalent Right – have very little in common politically. Stressed Sideliners hold mixed views; Ambivalent Right are conservative on many economic issues, while moderate on some social issues; and Outsider Left are very liberal on most issues, especially on race and the social safety net. What these groups do have in common is relatively low interest in politics: They had the lowest rates of voting in the 2020 presidential election and are less likely than other groups to follow government and public affairs most of the time.