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Coalitions for Obama, Republicans Fragile as Voters Shed Political Labels

With a growing proportion of Americans eschewing party labels, President Barack Obama and his would-be Republican rivals face challenges in assembling a winning coalition in next year’s election, according to a study of public attitudes.

The survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press finds that more Americans call themselves Democrats than Republicans, and that Obama holds a 10-percentage-point edge over a hypothetical Republican rival. Still, Republicans are more unified in their views on key issues and disapprove of the president far more ardently than Democrats back him.

The results of the survey indicate that Obama’s winning coalition of 2008 has frayed, while also showing that Republicans face a tricky task in putting together a winning bloc for their party.

There has been a rise in independents -- 37 percent, up from 30 percent the last time Pew conducted a broad survey in 2005 -- and these individuals’ views defy easy categorization.

“People in the middle have some pretty strong and well- defined sense of values, and they’re a challenge both to the Democrats and to the Republicans,” said Andrew Kohut, the Pew center’s president and director of the survey. “They have conflicted attitudes.”

The average of Pew’s polls so far this year finds 32 percent identifying themselves as Democrats, while 25 percent said they were Republicans.


The study released yesterday breaks down the U.S. population into eight so-called “typologies,” -- two Republican groups, three Democratic groups and three in the center.

The center groups include Republican-leaning “libertarians” -- a mostly white, well-educated and affluent group comprising 10 percent of registered voters -- who have strongly anti-government views, opposing increased help for the needy and environmental regulation and backing businesses. Yet they hold relatively liberal views on social issues compared to most Republicans, including being more accepting of homosexuality and immigrants.

Democratic-leaning “post-moderns” -- another well- educated and well-off group making up 14 percent of registered voters -- are liberal on social issues and supportive of environmental rules and other regulations, yet are less likely than core Democrats to back more government help for the needy or policies to achieve racial equality.


The third middle group is Republican-leaning “disaffecteds” -- the most financially stressed group that comprises 11 percent of registered voters. The study categorizes them as religious and socially conservative voters who are critical of both business and government. While aligning with Republican orthodoxy in most ways, disaffecteds are more likely than others to back more government help for the needy, and 61 percent support doing so even if it means the government goes more deeply into debt.

A quarter of these disaffecteds voted for Obama in 2008, while fewer than half that number backed Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, the poll finds. Still, those gains for Republicans could be fleeting.

Voting Question

“The question is, if the economy continues the way it is and the Republicans are talking about cuts in Medicare or changes in Medicare, it’s not clear what they will do,” Carroll Doherty, an associate director of the study, said of the disaffecteds. “It’s not as if they will defect, it’s just that they may stay home” and not vote, he said.

On the Democratic side, 65 percent of the post-moderns said they voted for Obama in 2008, while 13 percent said they supported his Republican challenger, Arizona Senator John McCain. Voting by this group dropped off sharply in the 2010 midterm elections, and 43 said they backed Democrats while 17 percent said they supported Republicans.

Obama “has to energize the base, and the base not only includes the core Democratic groups, but also the post-moderns that have less of an eye and ear for politics, and aren’t liberal through and through,” Kohut said.

The key issue dividing the parties is their attitudes about government and its role, a shift from the 2005 study --conducted during the Iraq war -- in which national security and views on an assertive foreign policy were the dominant topics.

Size of Government

Large majorities of Republican-affiliated groups want to shrink government, while solid majorities of Democrats hold the opposite view. On the right, 96 percent of staunch conservatives, 74 percent of Main Street Republicans, and 85 percent of libertarians said they wanted a smaller government, while 74 percent of solid liberals, 53 percent of hard-pressed Democrats, and 65 percent of new coalition Democrats said they preferred bigger government.

The study is based on two surveys with a combined sample of 3,029 adults, conducted February 22-March 14, and a smaller follow-up survey of 1,432 of the same respondents conducted April 7-10. The error margin for the entire sample is plus-or- minus 2.2 percentage points; for the call-back group it is 3.1 points.

Researchers found that within the Republican Party the old divide between economic and social conservatives has largely disappeared, giving way to a group of politically engaged “staunch conservatives” that overwhelmingly agrees with the anti-government Tea Party, regularly watches the Fox News cable television channel and believes that Obama was born outside the United States. This group comprises 11 percent of the electorate, according to the poll.

‘Main Street’ Group

A second Republican group the survey calls “Main Street Republicans” and that comprises 14 percent of registered voters are socially and fiscally conservative, though more skeptical of business and supportive of environmental regulation.

The Democratic groups identified were less unified. The solid liberals, who make up 16 percent of registered voters, are strongly in favor of government, socially and fiscally liberal, and two-thirds say they disagree with the Tea Party.

A largely blue-collar group of “hard-pressed Democrats,” comprising 15 percent of the electorate, is socially conservative, skeptical of both business and government and holds negative views about immigrants.

The third group, “new coalition Democrats,” consists mostly of minorities who are highly religious, socially conservative, pro-immigrant and financially stressed. It comprises 9 percent of registered voters.

Support for Obama

Support for the president and his policies on the liberal side of the political spectrum is no match for anti-Obama fervor among those on the conservative flank, the study found. While 84 percent of staunch conservatives strongly disapproved of his job performance, just 64 percent of solid liberals strongly supported him.

Similarly, the two core Republican groups expressed strongly negative views about the 2010 health-care law, while even solid liberals offered only tepid support, with 43 percent saying it will have a mostly positive impact on the nation’s health care.

“The Republican groups, especially staunch conservatives, have really been fired up, not only based on Obama personally, but also with respect to their opposition to more activist government,” Kohut said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at   or

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at

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