Since Donald Trump started gaining momentum in the polls, many have predicted that we have seen the last of the Republican Party as we currently know it. Instead of being controlled by the wealthy, educated business leaders, Trump has brought the rural, working-class white Americans to the forefront of the party. As David Brooks wrote in September, the current makeup of the parties is unsustainable. However, trying to find the right fit for the views of the American public is no easy task, and parties built around firm ideologies are not the foundations of lasting parties.
In our recent national survey of 1,100 adults, we engaged voters on the three key points concerning the idea of their ideal political party: a party that will represent all the views that are (1) critical to them, (2) nice to have but are not necessarily deal breakers, and (3) those deal breaker views that would prevent them from joining the party at all. While there are many issues we could have included, we chose issues that tend to be the most polarizing and talked about today to keep the experiment manageable. Our issues comprised 6 social issues (i.e. pro-choice and pro-life) and 5 economic issues (such as strongly increasing Wall Street regulations and leaving or reducing Wall Street regulations) with two sides to each issue for respondents to categorize.
Overall, social issues, both liberal and conservative ones, are the most critical to voters’ political parties, led by pro-choice (45% critical), pro-gun control (42%) and pro-gun rights (40%). Economic issues were overall less critical to voters apart from repealing Obamacare, which is critical to 38% of Americans, and immigration, 38% for whom a path to citizenship is critical and 36% for whom strengthening immigration without amnesty is critical. Interestingly, despite all the focus on trade this election season, being pro-free trade is only critical to a quarter of Americans (24%) while being anti-free trade is critical to just 17% of Americans. Despite the apparent divisiveness, this is not an essential issue to build a party around. However, no issue position was viewed as critical to most Americans to build a party around, even though there were many issues that many Americans think would be at least nice to represent.
In order to break respondents into their ideal political parties based on common issues positions that are important to them, we began with cluster analysis to group Americans the most efficient way possible. We often use cluster analysis to group voters based on the issues that they not only agree with, but the ones that truly motivate them in an election. However, after countless iterations, cluster analysis was unable to segment the American population into groups that made sense. No matter how many times we tried, very few people would have been truly happy in their party, which is arguably no better than what we have now.
Since cluster analysis couldn’t group Americans into the “right” parties, we developed a scoring system that placed Americans on a liberal-to-conservative scale depending on the strength of their ideology. The far ends of the scale represent the Americans for whom every liberal/conservative social and economic issue is critical while the opposing view is something they absolutely do not want. As you can imagine, this is a very small number of the American population who cares deeply enough about these issues to ensure they’re creating a purely liberal or purely conservative party. Most Americans sit somewhere in the middle, peaking at neutral – those who hold an equal number of liberal and conservative positions, or would prefer a party to have certain beliefs but nothing is critical.
As you can see in the chart above, this does not help segment the American population into the most workable political parties since there is no clear place to draw the line. If you were to draw it on either side of the neutral label above, those just to the left and right of the cut would not be happy to be bunched in with those at the far reaches of the scale, and vice versa. Additionally, there are very large differences between being socially conservative and economically conservative, for example - just ask the current Republican Party. Therefore, instead of treating all liberal and conservative viewpoints as equal and plotting them on one axis, we decided it would be better to cross the socially conservative-to-liberal scale with the economic one. In this exercise, we found that overall, just over a quarter of Americans (26%) consider themselves liberal on both economic issues and social issues and 19% are conservative on both, with an additional 9% who are socially liberal but economically conservative and 6% who are socially conservative and economically liberal. That leaves 40% of Americans who are neither liberal nor conservative on social and/or economic issues.
As you can see below, the largest concentration of voters who are not wholly liberal or conservative is among African Americans, who a critical component to Democratic success. Pointing to the fact that while their ideologies might not match up, their large support levels for Democratic candidates is clearly motivated by other factors.
While Donald Trump and the current fissure within the Republican Party might have sped up the process, the political parties as we currently define them were already likely to evolve as Baby Boomers become less influential in the electorate. As the chart above shows, over three-in-five voters ages 65 and older easily fit into the traditional liberal and conservative issue positions that characterize the Democratic and Republican Parties. However, that drops to just a majority (52%) of Americans ages 45-64 and only a third (34%) of Americans under 45 neatly fit into our current political parties based on issue positions, with nearly a majority not represented by any one political ideology.
While our five groups largely show the current state of the parties and the problems we will soon see, they don’t encompass where it could lead to. Splitting up the three largest groups above even further, we find that there are 11 distinct ideologies that are largely driven by social issues; only 9% of Americans are only neutral when it comes to social issues while 19% are neutral on economic issues but are strongly motivated on social issues. As you can see in the chart below, 13% of Americans hold both liberal and conservative views on both social and economic issues or are not easily motivated by these issues, while 17% hold traditionally liberal opinions and 9% are very liberal. On the flip side, 14% of Americans are traditionally conservative while just 4% are very conservative.
As our political parties evolve, it is not realistic to expect 11 political parties based on ideology to form, and even if they did, it’s hard to imagine how coalition government would work with our system. Instead, our data shows that for the most part, the party that moves away from ideology-based outlooks and demonstrates itself to be the most reasonable and affective at getting work accomplished will have the upper hand. Indeed, only 13% of Americans hold uncompromising liberal or conservative views and want policies to match their political ideology at any cost; however, they tend to be the ones who have the loudest voice in the current parties.
It would generally work to have three parties broken along social ideologies, 44% would aligned on the liberal side, with 34% on the conservative side, and 22% in the middle, but once you veer into economic issues, the socially liberal party will lose at least 20% of its membership while the same will happen to 18% of the socially conservative party. If we were to build parties along economic lines, we would run into the same problem, as 36% would be aligned liberally and 42% on the conservative side, but the party platforms cannot stray from economic issues. Focusing on just social or economic issues is not how society works and we cannot realistically make political parties that are based solely on ideology. If the middling liberal and conservative groups were to ignore the more extreme portions of their ideologies, they could conceivably move to the center to pick up the more neutral groups, but they would have to prove their ability to make a difference in the issues they care about.
If you get out of the ideological mindset as the necessary bounds to pull people together and focus on building a party around one that gets policy accomplished, political parties would attract more voters. After gauging Americans’ opinions on specific policy positions that are important to them, we asked about more general focuses of their ideal new party. Overall, over seven in ten want to see their party focus on increasing the use of alternative energy, 55% of Americans want their party to focus on improving existing regulations on businesses, 54% want it to improve existing environmental regulations, and 51% want a progressive tax plan. Support for these larger goals exist in many of the distinct ideological groups we identified.
Even when it comes to issues that are traditionally liberal, such as a progressive tax plan, a strong coalition that breaks ideological bounds can be formed. Overall, just those at the very edges of the liberal and conservative ideologies would not support a party that proposed reasoned changes even if they didn’t perfectly match up with their views.
Given these results it is no wonder that the Republican Party is perilously close to dissolving (or at least changing dramatically). That being said, we would advise the Democratic Party to resist the urge to dance on the grave of the Republicans, since the Democratic coalition is not exactly on stable footing either. Also, be wary of anyone who claims that the party just needs to be more conservative or needs to move further left to bring more people on board. These attitudes are completely contradictory to the data. The biggest challenge moving forward for a successful party/parties is moving past the ideological frames that we have lived in for so long.
Congress is viewed incredibly unfavorably these days and the reputation is well deserved in our opinion. However, before we put all the blame on our elected officials, let's always remember - we are very difficult to represent within the two-party framework.
To see a PDF version of this memo, please click here.
 72% support increasing the use of alternative energy, 28% support increasing the use of natural fuels
 55% support improving existing regulations on businesses, 22% support increasing regulations on businesses, and 23% support reducing regulations on businesses
 54% support improving existing environmental regulations, 29% support increasing environmental regulations, and 17% support reducing environmental regulations
51% want a progressive tax plan, 22% support a flat tax, 4% support lowering taxes for the wealthy and businesses, and 23% support lowering taxes for everyone