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What Makes a Democrat a Democrat and a Republican a Republican? It's More Complicated than You Think.

Political scientists will often say that people’s political party affiliations are major causes of their voting behavior and of their opinions on various policy issues. Yet this line often neglects evidence that, to understand political party affiliations, one needs to focus on voters’ opinions on various policy issues.

Fifty years ago, Democrat Lyndon Johnson battled Republican Barry Goldwater for the presidency. At that time, no Republican presidential candidate had carried the Deep South since Reconstruction. Nonetheless, Goldwater carried the line of states from Louisiana to South Carolina (as well as his home state of Arizona) but no other states. The reason for his victory in these southern states had to do with Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, which Johnson, in contrast, had championed. In the election, many southern whites voted on the basis of this issue, at the expense of their traditional party.

Further, as the pace of social change accelerated in the early 1960s, the Supreme Court issued a line of controversial decisions on school prayer, birth control, and abortion. These previously sleepy issues took on greater public prominence. As the political parties adopted their contrasting positions in the 1970s, key voting groups began shifting. White churchgoers (including many southerners and Catholics who had previously been solid supporters of Democrats) increasingly voted Republican, while the growing group of non-religious whites leaned more towards Democrats.

More recently, the Reagan years saw the opening of a new gender gap in party voting, driven not by abortion (an issue on which men and women have never, it turns out, differed much on average), but by the gender gap in support for government safety-net programs. In addition, more recently, Republicans have become increasingly associated with anti-immigrant views (a major milestone occurring in 1994, when Republican Governor Pete Wilson supported California’s Proposition 187), and, as a result, Latinos have become increasingly solid Democratic supporters.

To make sense of contemporary politics, it’s more crucial than ever to understand what drives the public’s contrasting views on a wide range of hot-button issues – taxes, healthcare, affirmative action, immigration, school prayer, same-sex marriage, abortion, marijuana legalization, and others. One needs to be able to see how these issues relate to the demographic splits that increasingly guide political analysis.

In The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind (Princeton, 2014), we offer a fresh perspective on these topics. We combine the data-driven analyses typical of political professionals with growing psychological insights into human motives.

We sift through large surveys for connections between people’s lives and their politics, focusing attention on the biggest links. A key point is that different kinds of issues involve different major demographic predictors.

For views on economic issues, for instance, the big splits are driven by income, race, gender, and other factors relating to economic security. So, if we look at the core demographic of those most likely to benefit from government poverty programs – people in the bottom 40% of family income who have had children but who aren’t yet old enough for Social Security and Medicare – support for government redistribution wealth from rich to poor is strong. Among whites, 57% favor the idea while 26% oppose it; among non-whites, it’s 59% versus 19%. The key opponents include whites with family incomes in the top 10%; of these individuals, 27% favor the idea and 57% oppose it.

In terms of discrimination, the big splits involve whether people are in the group being discriminated against or the group doing the discriminating, and, secondarily, whether people are well-positioned to succeed under the current species of education-based meritocracy that seeks to replace the old discriminatory rules. For example, 70% of non-Christians approve of the Supreme Court’s ban on school prayer, but only 30% of Christians without bachelor’s degrees agree. Similarly, only 23% of immigrants want to reduce immigration levels, but 65% of native-born whites without bachelor’s degree want to. More generally, we find that those with less education and poorer test performance – those who often have worse outcomes under modern meritocratic regimes – are especially likely to favor group-based policies providing advantages to people with their own group features.

For views on sexual and reproductive issues, the big splits involve church attendance along with the various lifestyle features that weigh heavily in driving some towards and others away from houses of worship – marriage, cohabitation, sexual histories, children, and so on. For instance, on questions about whether abortion should be legally available in circumstance of rape and in circumstances in which a woman is single and doesn’t want to marry, 43% of weekly churchgoers say “no” to both cases while only 21% say “yes” to both; among those who do not attend services as often as once a month, in contrast, only 12% say “no” to both while 53% say “yes” to both.

Yet, crucially, church attendance hardly relates, statistically, to views on immigration or income redistribution. Similarly, being an immigrant hardly relates, statistically, to views on school prayer or abortion. Greater income predicts more conservative views on income redistribution, but also predicts somewhat more liberal views on immigration, school prayer, and abortion.

In fact, by the later chapters in our book, we look at a large number of combinations of demographic features to get a better look at the complex contrasts in public opinion. For example, we look at white, heterosexual, Christian men with lots of education who attend church infrequently. Such people often have solid economic security as well as relatively freewheeling personal lives. While they typically favor Republicans and have conservative economic views, their opinion on issues impacting sexual lifestyles are more often liberal. Contrast this group with white, heterosexual Christians with lower incomes and frequent church attendance – also typically Republican voters, but with very conservative views on lifestyle issues and left-leaning economic views. Move to non-white, heterosexual Christians with lower incomes and frequent church attendance, and now we see typically Democratic voters with liberal views on economic and racial issues, yet with strongly conservative views on average on issues such as school prayer, same-sex marriage, and abortion.

In the recent 2014 election, as in other recent elections, Democrats did particularly well among African Americans, lesbians/gays/bisexuals, non-Christians (those with no religious affiliation, Jews, and others), those who never attend religious services, Latinos, and the poor. Our book provides a guide to the issue-specific connections these various features imply.

One of the major themes we stress is that, even with the recent uptick in people with fulsomely liberal or fulsomely conservative views, it remains the case that a large majority of the public has liberal views on some issues and conservative views on others. In fact, if one investigates groups other than college-educated whites, knowing someone’s position on abortion or same-sex marriage yields almost no prediction of their views on income redistribution – despite the fact that both religious and economic issues are important to the current coalitional alignments of the parties.

These insights bring recent shifts in the political parties into much greater focus. They also shed light on current struggles within the parties – why some Republicans favor more tolerant stances on immigration while most prefer harsher positions, why some Democrats are reluctant to increase taxes on the wealthy or to place stronger regulations on big banks while most favor these ideas, and so on.

If history tells us anything about party politics, it’s that the coalitions at a given time aren’t permanent. These things change. Understanding these changes – past, present, and future – requires a closer look at voters’ issue-driven minds.