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New research by a Brigham Young University political scientist suggests U.S. citizens are not as divided along ideological lines as is commonly believed. While elected representatives stake out polarized positions, the people who sent them to office are not so dogmatic, according to a paper published by BYU's Jeremy Pope and his colleague Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania.
The scholars contrasted views held by voters in states regarded as liberal and conservative and found broad areas of overlap on both economic and social issues.
"Far from being from 'two separate planets,' red- and blue-state citizens seem to inhabit the same neighborhood," they wrote in a study published in the current edition of Public Opinion Quarterly. "Even with relatively extreme states such as New York and Utah, the level of overlap is striking."
The authors began exploring the nation's ideological divide while graduate students at Stanford University several years ago. Levendusky went on to write a book titled The Partisan Sort: How Liberals Became Democrats and Conservatives Became Republicans.
The polarization that seems to afflict American politics might get a lot of attention in the media, but it's a distorted picture, the scholars say.
"The world is not black and white, or red and blue. It's more nuanced," said Pope, who grew up in Provo and is a research fellow with BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "I hope that it's a reminder to people to not use convenient stereotypes they are not terribly descriptive. There is a lot more complexity than you realize."
Much of that complexity gets lost in the way Utah nominates state candidates, picked at conventions where activist delegates hold disproportionate sway, says a University of Utah political scientist.
"It's a myopic, exclusionary device. Activists are not paying attention to public opinion. They are not really talking to their neighbors," said Tim Chambless, academic outreach coordinator at the Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Former Utah Gov. Olene Walker, a Republican who represented a liberal Salt Lake City neighborhood from 1980 to 1988 in the Legislature, agrees that most Americans share many concerns regardless of political orientation. Walker was a popular governor who inherited the office after Michael Leavitt left to serve the second Bush administration in 2003, but Republican delegates declined to put her name on the 2004 primary ballot.
"People generally want sound government, government that meets basic needs, but they want freedom to think and make choices that are unique to the particular needs of their state," she said. "Utah has a tendency to be viewed as far more conservative, because of our system of elections."
Conventions, where delegates choose candidates to run in primaries, are controlled by their parties' extreme wings, she said. As a result, Republican politicians have to appeal to the far right to get a shot in a statewide primary.
"When I was in legislative leadership, [lawmakers] were really concerned about what was best for the state," Walker said. "Slowly that has turned. You see it in Washington. What's emphasized is not what's good for the country, but whether it is a Republican bill or a Democratic bill. The same has applied to the state. I think it is unfortunate that change occurred."
Pope and Levendusky explored the red state-blue state dichotomy the media use to depict which states vote for Republican and Democratic candidates in presidential elections by tapping the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a massive database of voter surveys. They analyzed the residents' views in all 50 states weighting them by population on potent issues like the Iraq war, abortion and Social Security privatization in a technique called factor analysis, then charted them as lines on a graph. The arcing lines indicate areas of commonality are much larger than areas of difference.
"When we look at the entire distribution of opinion, a different picture emerges, one suggesting more similarity between the states than would be assumed from the standard red/blue discussion," they wrote.
The paper singled out two states on the outer reaches of the red-blue divide, New York and Utah.
On social issues, residents of the two states agreed 77 percent of the time, and 69 percent on economic issues. In other words, don't rely on positions held by Utah Sen. Mike Lee and New York Sen. Charles Schumer to draw conclusions about those states' electorates.
"The people are ready to have compromise if the elected officials are ready to support it. They haven't compromised for a reason," Pope said. "They are trying to please the most activist part of their base. They really care about certain issues that's why they're in politics."