PEW: Independents Take Center Stage in Obama Era





The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’ long-term values study project has been tracking a broad range of beliefs and attitudes that shape public opinion and influence voting behavior. The project began in 1987 and has been updated 14 times over the past 22 years.

As the Obama era begins, the survey finds that centrism has emerged as a dominant factor in public opinion. The political values and core attitudes of the American public show little overall ideological movement. The growing political middle is steadfastly mixed in its beliefs about government, the free market and other values that underlie views on contemporary issues and policies.

The proportion of independents now equals its highest level in 70 years.

Both political parties have lost adherents since the election, and Republican affiliation is at its lowest level in at least a quarter century.

On nearly every dimension, the Republican Party is at low ebb – from image, to morale, to demographic vitality.

But there has been no movement away from conservatism, nor a shift toward liberalism, among the public at large.

Fewer favor the government providing a safety net for the poor and increasing help for the needy, if it means more debt, than did so two years ago. More broadly, the public remains conflicted about government’s role and views of the private sector. Fully 86% say government needs to do more to make health care affordable and accessible. But nearly half (46%) say they are concerned about “the government becoming too involved in health care.”

The public views business as greedy, but important, and offers reluctant support for regulation.

Owing to defections from the GOP, independents are more conservative on several key issues than in the past.

They are more skittish than they were two years ago about expanding the social safety net and are reluctant backers of greater government involvement in the private sector.

But independents continue to more closely parallel the views of Democrats rather than Republicans on the most divisive core beliefs on social values, religion and national security.

Today’s Republican Party is smaller but not substantially more conservative than in recent years. Republicans are aging and do not reflect the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the general public.

Over this decade, the average age of Republicans increased from 45.5 to 48.3. Republicans are dominated by non-Hispanic whites (88%), as they were in 2000.

For Democrats, the proportion of non-Hispanic whites has declined from 64% in 2000 to 56%, and on average, Democrats are now younger than Republicans for the first time in at least two decades.

Hard economic times have not led to isolationism but have affected environmental attitudes and reduced the importance of moral values as an issue.

An increased number of Americans – especially Democrats – completely agree that the U.S. should play an active role in world affairs. Support for free trade is unexpectedly higher than a year ago. Despite broad support for stricter environmental laws and regulation, the public’s willingness to pay higher prices and suffer slower economic growth for environmental protection has declined substantially from two years ago. The economy also has demoted moral values as a political issue.

The comprehensive survey updates a number of important trends. It finds a long-term decline in social conservatism as a result of generational change. It also shows African Americans holding a more generally positive outlook on American society.

The 2009 American Political Values survey was conducted nationwide among 3,013 adults between March 31 and April 21, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish. The study takes a detailed look at partisan affiliation, views of key demographic groups and fundamental attitudes toward a broad range of issues.

For a direct link to the full report, go to http://people-press.org/report/517/political-values-and-core-attitudes. The survey is for immediate release and is available on our website http://people-press.org/.


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