With the primary election just around the corner, we’ve made it through at least one set of contests for this election year. We’ll likely see a second primary election (known popularly as a run-off) before formally heading into the fall campaign season and the November general election.
Even with the rush of elections, however, we will still have one facet with us throughout this year and into the foreseeable future: a level of polarized politics. There are different ways to look at our polarized political landscape, whether through the fact that both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate are seeing levels of polarization between the parties not seen since before the Civil War, to the tension between the president and Congress.
Or perhaps it’s within our two major political parties, both of which have undergone a dramatic transformation over the past 60 years into being much more ideologically cohesive.
Two reasons illustrate this point: In the 1950s, a team of political scientists wrote that there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between Democrats and Republicans, and that America needed parties that offered clear and distinct policies from each other.
Well, today, most of us would agree that there’s more than a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties, thanks largely in part to the realignment of both parties to become more ideologically pure. Remember those things called Rockefeller Republicans or Southern conservative Democrats? We might as well be talking about Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The second reason for the ideologically purity of our parties has to do with a significant number of Americans who have dealigned or loosened their ties to either party to the point of identifying as a political independent. In both Gallup and Pew Research Center polls, a significant plurality of Americans says they are political independent.
In fact, in North Carolina, the overwhelming numbers of voters registering as “unaffiliated” has increased over 25 percent since 2008, while both parties are either flat or slightly declining in their numbers.
Currently, statewide registration figures have registered Democrats at 42 percent, registered Republicans at 31 percent, and registered unaffiliated voters at 27 percent.
Estimates are that the future pool of Tar Heel voters will eventually settle into thirds: one third for each of the major parties with a third being independent.
In Rowan County, even before the concerted effort of some to switch their party registration to unaffiliated, the independent numbers showed a distinctive growth as well.
In 2006, the county’s registration was 43 percent Republican, 37 percent Democratic, and 19 percent unaffiliated. The latest numbers have if 41 percent Republican, 33 percent Democratic, and 26 percent unaffiliated.
But are these unaffiliated voters really independent? Some would argue that the polarization is within the masses as well, especially among voters who cast their ballots for starkly different political parties who have become more ideologically pure. If you self-identify as a member of one or the other political party, the likelihood is that you will vote 90 percent of the time for the party.
And even if you claim that you are a political independent but “lean” to one party over the other, then you’ll probably end up voting for your party just as much as a strong partisan will do.
So we know the elected officials and voters are seeing politics in very different lenses from one side of the political aisle over the other. But where do we see these polarized politics?
North Carolina has been described in very different ways, from the mountains to the Piedmont to the coast, from Lexington to Eastern style, but recently the state can be described as two distinct political regions: urban versus suburban/rural.
While Mitt Romney was able to recapture the state by the slimmest of margins in 2012, he did so in the suburban and rural areas of the state, where he captured 56 percent of the vote. But in the urban counties of the state, President Obama captured 64 percent of the vote.
This is the new location of much of our polarized politics in the Tar Heel state. If you take each of the 3,000 plus precincts and look at whether they were “non-competitive” (defined as one party winning more than 55 percent of the vote in that precinct) or “competitive” (one party getting less than 55 percent or more than 45 percent of the vote), you can divide each of these three regions’ precincts in Democratic dominant, Republican dominant, or competitive precincts.
Statewide, 54 percent of the precincts are considered Republican dominant, while 29 percent are Democratic-dominant. Only 17 percent of the precincts in the 100 counties could be considered “competitive” in their political nature.
Among urban precincts, 66 percent were Democratic-dominant, with only 15 percent competitive. In suburban and rural precincts, 62 percent and 63 percent of them were Republican dominant, respectively; in both areas, only 17 percent of the precincts could be classified as “competitive.”
So, it would appear that we have indeed “sorted ourselves,” to use a term popularized by Bill Bishop in his book, “The Big Sort.” We live in like-minded communities that vote in similar fashion and when we meet someone from the opposite political persuasion, we can’t understand them and they can’t understand us.
But can we measure this polarization in our local communities? One method to do so is by a partisan-voting index, developed by Charlie Cook, a respected independent analyst who studies the U.S. House districts and compares the district’s performance for a presidential candidate over the candidate’s national performance.
Taking his method, let’s say in 2004 a presidential candidate received 49 percent of the statewide vote, but in a precinct, that same candidate got 59 percent of the vote. That precinct would have been a +10 for that candidate.
Now, take the next presidential year’s election in 2008, and say that same candidate got the same 49 percent of the statewide vote, but that precinct voted 69 percent for their candidate. Taking the two numbers of +10 and +20, you would average a +15 for that precinct in favor of one party over the other.
So, if we consider that any precinct that is +10 or higher as a “likely” for one party over the other, while those with +3 to +10 as “lean” to one party, then anything under a +3 would be a ‘toss-up’ or potentially competitive precinct.
Taking the 2008 and 2012 numbers in each of Rowan County’s 41 precincts, what we see is a county at odds with itself: only three precincts can be considered toss-up or likely to flip from one party winning to the other. The vast majority are either likely Democratic (most notably around Salisbury, Spencer and East Spencer) while the rest of the county is likely Republican.
Elections are contests about ideas, and at all levels of elected offices across the state and within Rowan County, we are hearing different ideas and proposals for how we should govern ourselves and who we should consider representing our ideas and beliefs.
But where we have such deep polarization and an inability to recognize where the other side is coming from, how can our fundamental principle of self-governance be maintained?
Dr. Michael Bitzer, a professor of history and politics, is provost of Catawba College.