The Issues That Divide People Within Each Party

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There is no shortage of issues that divide Democrats and Republicans — the presidential election, the Supreme Court confirmation vote, etc. But let’s spend a little time today looking at issues that split voters within the two parties.

These issues are likely to come to the foreground after the election is over. If Republicans lose races for the presidency, U.S. Senate and some state legislatures1 — as seems likely right now — there will be a debate within the GOP about how to get back in power. Meanwhile, newly empowered Democrats would have to figure out which policies they want to advance first. On the other hand, if Democrats lose the presidential election (and it’s clear that the election was conducted fairly), we are likely to see a Super Bowl of recriminations, told-ya-so essays and infighting over how the party lost an election against such an unpopular president. President Trump and a victorious Republican Party would have to set a second-term agenda — a task complicated enough that the party opted against releasing an updated platform ahead of this year’s conventions.
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So which issues divide Democrats, and which ones divide Republicans? Two polls released this week, one conducted by the New York Times and Siena College and the other by PRRI, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on the intersection of religion, culture and public policy, provide some fresh answers.

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Issues that divide Democrats

  • A national mandate for a coronavirus vaccine: 47 percent of Democrats supported a national mandate to take a COVID-19 vaccine if one is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and 48 percent opposed it, per the New York Times/Siena poll of likely voters, which was conducted Oct. 15 to 18. This is an unpopular idea with the broader American public — only 18 percent of Republicans voters and 32 percent of likely voters overall supported such a mandate, according to the poll.
  • A more liberal presidential nominee: About 45 percent of adults who identify as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents said that they had initially favored Sen. Bernie Sanders (31 percent) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (14 percent) during the Democratic primary, per the PRRI survey, which was conducted Sept. 9-22.2 Twenty-eight percent said they had preferred Joe Biden, 10 percent said former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, 6 percent said former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 4 percent said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, 2 percent said Tom Steyer, and 4 percent said someone else. (The poll did not ask respondents about candidates who dropped out earlier in the primary process, such as Sen. Kamala Harris.)
    Democratic voters are firmly behind Biden in his race against Trump. But there is a sizeable bloc in the party who favored more liberal candidates, and divisions between this more liberal bloc and the party’s more centrist bloc are likely to emerge if Democrats have total control of Washington next year — or even if Democrats control the presidency and the House.
  • Reparations: Exactly half of Democrats (50 percent) said they supported economically compensating African Americans who are the descendants of enslaved people, and almost exactly half (49 percent) opposed this idea, according to PRRI. This is an unpopular idea, more broadly — only 27 percent of Americans, including 5 percent of Republicans, supported reparations.
  • Religion: 46 percent of Democrats said they felt that religion causes more problems in society than it solves, while 53 percent of Democrats disagreed with that sentiment. Only 38 percent of Americans overall said that religion creates more problems than it solves, compared to 61 percent who disagreed with that sentiment, including 79 percent of Republicans.

Issues that divide Republicans

  • Trump’s speech and behavior: 46 percent of Republicans said they wished that Trump’s speech and behavior was “consistent with previous presidents,” compared to 53 percent who disagreed, per PRRI. That was a popular sentiment with the broader public — 68 percent of American adults and 84 percent of Democrats wished Trump acted more like his predecessors.
  • A public health insurance option: 45 percent of Republicans supported a government-operated health insurance plan that all Americans could enroll in, while 47 percent opposed this idea, according to the New York Times/Siena poll. This was also a popular idea overall — 67 percent of Americans, including 87 percent of Democrats, supported a public option.
  • State and local government policies to limit the spread of COVID-19, such as requirements to wear masks: 56 percent of Republicans said state and local governments are taking “reasonable steps to protect people,” while 43 percent said those moves are “unreasonable attempts to control people,” per PRRI. These policies were broadly popular — 76 percent of Americans, including 94 percent of Democrats, said state and local governments were taking reasonable steps.
  • A mini-Green New Deal: 46 percent of Republicans opposed a “$2 trillion plan to increase the use of renewable energy and build energy-efficient infrastructure,” and 45 percent of Republicans supported it, according to the New York Times/Siena survey. The question referred neither to Biden nor to the “Green New Deal.” (The former vice president has a $2 trillion proposal that focuses on both improving America’s infrastructure and reducing the nation’s use of fossil fuels. It’s basically a shrunken-down version of the Green New Deal.) It’s quite possible that support for this proposal would be much lower among Republicans if the question cast it as, say, “Joe Biden’s version of the Green New Deal.” But it’s interesting that the concept of a more modest Green New Deal is not that unpopular with Republicans. Sixty-six percent of Americans, including 89 percent of Democrats, supported this idea.
  • Getting a COVID-19 vaccine: 54 percent of Republicans said they would “probably” or “definitely” get a vaccine for COVID-19 if it were approved by the FDA, and 40 percent said they “probably” or “definitely” would not get it, per the New York Times/Siena survey. Sixty-one percent of Americans, including 69 percent of Democrats, said they would “probably” or “definitely” get the vaccine.
  • The levels of discrimination Black and Hispanic Americans face: About half of Republicans (52 percent) said that Black Americans face “a lot” of discrimation, and about half (47 percent) said that they don’t, per PRRI. Forty-five percent of Republicans agreed that Hispanic Americans face a lot of discrimation, compared to 53 percent who disagreed. Most Americans overall (75 percent) and Democrats (92 percent) said that Black Americans face a lot of discrimination. The numbers were similar but slightly lower for discrimination against Hispanic Americans: 69 percent of Americans and 86 percent of Democrats said that they face a lot of discrimination.
  • Immigration policy: Republicans are about equally split on allowing the separation of families at the border (45 percent supported, 53 percent opposed), protecting people who were brought to the U.S. as children but are not citizens from deportation (45 percent supported, 54 percent opposed) and creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (48 percent supported such a pathway, 38 percent said they should be deported, and 14 percent said they should be allowed to become legal residents but not become citizens). A clear majority of Americans overall opposed separating families at the border (76 percent) and supported a pathway to citizenship (64 percent), as well as granting legal resident status to immigrants who would benefit from either the DREAM Act or DACA, commonly referred to as “Dreamers” (66 percent).
  • A universal basic income: 52 percent of Republicans supported guaranteeing all Americans a minimum income, compared to 48 percent who opposed such an idea, per PRRI. Seventy percent of Americans overall, including 88 percent of Democrats, supported a UBI.

You may have noticed both that there are more dividing issues listed here among Republicans than Democrats, and that there are a lot of ideas that split the Republican Party but are fairly popular among Americans. Part of that may be the nature of these surveys — a different set of questions might have found more splits among Democrats. But there’s an important explanation that gets at the parties’ divergent strategies.
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Pollsters usually ask about ideas that are part of the current political discourse, which usually means that major politicians or activists are talking about them, but that they aren’t yet law. Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in particular, tend to campaign on and try to pass ideas that they know are fairly popular with the public, so it’s not surprising that there are lots of potential Biden administration proposals — such as a public health insurance option — that basically all Democratic voters and even some Republican voters are on board with. This Democratic approach makes sense electorally — it helps explain why the party is likely to win the popular vote in 2020 and has done so in most recent presidential elections.

Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump are more willing than Biden and Pelosi to push controversial policies (such as separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border) and oppose popular ones (the protection from deportation for “Dreamers” that was enacted under President Obama). So that explains why a lot of fairly popular ideas aren’t already law. This approach is more electorally risky than the Democratic one but sometimes pays dividends in terms of policy: Trump has limited immigration much more than he would have if he had only advanced and executed ideas popular with the broader American public.

Other polling bites

  • 62 percent of likely voters believe that government-imposed limits on the number of people who can attend in-person gatherings — including at churches — amid the coronavirus outbreak are constitutional, according to a recent poll from the left-leaning Data for Progress; 29 percent said that subjecting churches to those limits impinges on religious liberties.
  • 57 percent of likely voters think the Affordable Care Act should be upheld by the Supreme Court even though the law’s mandate requiring people to purchase insurance has been effectively eliminated, according to that same survey.3 About 1 in 3 likely voters (32 percent), including 53 percent of Republicans, think the ACA should be scrapped in light of the mandate change.
  • 77 percent of registered voters said that the outcome of this year’s presidential election matters to them more than it has previous presidential elections, according to a September Gallup poll. That 77 percent is higher than for any previous presidential election going back to 1996 in Gallup’s polling. (The next-highest result was 74 percent in 2008.) In this year’s survey, 85 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Republicans and 69 percent of independents said that this election matters more than previous ones.
  • 69 percent of likely voters, including 54 percent of Republicans, think that it will take more than a year for the U.S. economy to recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, according to a recent poll conducted by Global Strategy Group and North Star Opinion Research on behalf of the Financial Times and the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Less than a third (31 percent) of Americans think the economy will recover within a year.
  • The same survey found that people are almost evenly split on whether Trump’s policies have helped the economy: 44 percent of people said his policies helped, compared to 46 who said they had hurt the economy.
  • 53 percent of adults ages 18-30 want Biden to win the election, 23 percent favor Trump, and a large bloc (17 percent) said they weren’t sure, according to a new Vice News/Ipsos poll. A majority (57 percent) of those surveyed said that they don’t feel represented by either party, compared to 28 percent who disagreed with that sentiment. These young voters are supportive of free COVID-19 testing for all Americans (85 percent), Medicare for All (68 percent) and the Black Lives Matter movement (64 percent). They are not as supportive of the Green New Deal (41 percent), limiting abortions after the first trimester (35 percent) and building a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border (26 percent).
  • 61 percent of U.S. adults said they know someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, according to an Axios/Ipsos poll conducted Oct. 16-19, while only 38 percent said they did not. This is a big jump from early March, when only 4 percent of Americans said they knew someone who had tested positive for the virus, and even mid-July, when 41 percent knew someone who’d tested positive. More than 1 in 5 Americans (22 percent) said they know someone who has died of the virus, while 78 percent said they do not.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,4 42.5 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.8 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -11.2 points). At this time last week, 42.7 percent approved and 54.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -11.6 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.7 percent and a disapproval rating of 53.0 percent, for a net approval rating of -10.3 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot,5 Democrats currently lead by 7.4 percentage points (49.4 percent to 42.0 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 7 points (48.9 percent to 41.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 6.3 points (48.7 percent to 42.3 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.