The middle ground of American politics is growing more difficult to find as the nation’s two major political parties organize around their ideologies and move further from the political center, according to a senior columnist with Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In a Feb. 15 column, Alan I. Abramowitz said his research shows that Democrats have moved further left and Republicans further right since 2012 and that the ideological divide between the two major parties has dramatically increased in the past 50 years.
But in the past eight years, Democratic voters have moved slightly further to the left than Republicans have to the right, and Democrats have become more willing to identify themselves as liberals.
Abramowitz’s research used a scale of one to seven to determine how far voters are apart, with one being most liberal and seven most conservative. Abramowitz’s research showed that in 1972 the parties were only one point apart, with Democrats’ mean score at 3.7 and Republicans’ at 4.7.
By 2020, Democrats scored 2.8 on the scale, compared to Republicans’ 5.5, showing both parties moving further away from the middle.
“This leftward shift has been somewhat greater among white Democrats than among nonwhite Democrats,” Abramowitz wrote. “However, both white and nonwhite Democrats moved to the left [between 2012 and 2020]. As a result, for the first time in recent history, partisan-ideological congruence is as great among Democrats as among Republicans.”
Abramowitz said Democratic voters are now as consistent in their liberalism as Republican voters are in their conservatism. Previously, Republicans identified more consistently as conservative than Democrats identified consistently as liberal.
“Democrats are still somewhat less likely to identify as liberal than Republicans are to identify as conservative,” he wrote. “On some specific policy issues, however, such as abortion … Democrats are more likely to take the liberal position than Republicans are to take the conservative position.”
Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Georgia, has been a senior columnist for the Crystal Ball for much of the political newsletter’s 20-year history.
Abramowitz said the leftward movement among white Democratic voters has some political observers suggesting there could be a growing racial divide in party political ideology. Nonwhites make up about 43% of Democratic voters and are traditionally less likely than white Democrats to self-identify as liberal. White voters are also more likely to support abortion rights, but both groups support government responsibility for jobs and living standards.
“For many years, white Democrats have lagged behind nonwhite Democrats in loyalty to Democratic presidential candidates,” Abramowitz wrote. “In 2020, however, this gap almost disappeared, with white Democratic identifiers almost as loyal as nonwhite Democratic identifiers.”
The Democrats’ cohesive political front is partly due to defections from the party by more centrist Democrats over the course of the past few decades, Abramowitz noted. That has contributed to the Democrats becoming more ideologically and politically cohesive, a trend that is likely to continue.
“In 2022, according to data from the American National Election Studies Pilot Survey, 96% of Democratic identifiers, including leaning independents, voted for Democratic candidates for U.S. House and U.S. Senate,” he wrote. “Growing ideological congruence among Democrats, and especially among white Democrats, suggests that these high levels of loyalty are likely to continue in 2024 and beyond.”
Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications
March 22, 2023