Why the GOP schism matters more than the Democratic divide

Donald Trump speaks at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday. Rick Wilking | Reuters

Donald Trump speaks at the Verizon Wireless Arena in Manchester, New Hampshire, on Monday. Rick Wilking | Reuters

Are both parties divided? Well, to some extent, sure.

Protestors in California shouted at Hillary Clinton and her supporters and your social media feed may be full of angry claims from some who so Feel the Bern that they don’t ever want to vote for Clinton.

Meanwhile, the only living former Republican presidents announced they won’t be endorsing anyone this year and multiple Republican office-holders say they won’t attend the party’s convention nominating Donald Trump for President.

But this year turns out to be yet another in which the “both sides are the same” narrative falls flat.

First of all, Democrats are already more unified than Republicans, as are liberals versus conservatives.

Primaries can be divisive, but the most recent CNN poll found that Democratic voters show little disunion.

A whopping 86% of Sanders’ supporters say they would vote for Hillary Clinton and only 10% would vote for Trump.

In contrast, 70% of non-Trump Republican voters say they would vote for Trump.

That same CNN poll found 85% of liberals supporting Clinton while only 66% of conservatives supporting Trump.

Second, Democrats see the nomination fights as more positive and much less divisive for their party than Republicans.

This can be seen in recent exit polls from Indiana, Pennsylvania and New York.

In these three states, supporters of the winning candidate were the largest share of who saw the contest as energized. But still the patterns by party were substantially different, with Democrats averaging 69% feeling energized, compared to just 38% of Republicans.

In Indiana, 72% of Democrats said the primaries had energized the party versus 23% who said it had been divided.

But among Indiana Republicans, only 40% picked energized, while 56% said the party was more divided.

The week before, this same pattern was seen in Pennsylvania. As an analysis for ABC News explained:

The difference between Republicans and Democrats in their view of their respective campaigns’ impact on party unity is striking. In the Pennsylvania GOP primary, just four in 10 say the campaign has energized the party, while nearly six in 10 say it’s divided it. (In the Democratic race, by contrast, seven in 10 say their race has energized the party.)

And a week before that in New York, 66% of Democrats thought the campaign was energizing and 30% divisive.

Just 36% of New York Republican voters thought the primaries were energizing, compared to 59% who said they divided the party.

Why the differences?

One reason why Democrats are less divided and find the contest more energizing that Republicans is that their candidates are not really that different on policy positions when looked at in the broader American policy context.

Sure, their supporters can point to particular votes and positions where they diverge, but Clinton’s and Sanders’ Senate voting records overlapped by 93%.

Donald Trump’s temperament and ever-shifting positions aren’t in synch with typical Republican elected officials and candidates, even as they have resonated with a plurality and, more recently, a majority of primary voters. The idea of an erratic, ill-informed President Trump with nuclear weapons is troubling.

Thus there really is less unity among Republicans.

Another factor is the difference in how partisans see the political world.

Republicans are less supportive of compromise and more likely to see the world as split into starkly disconnected groups. So when there is disagreement and argument, instead of finding it energizing, there’s a sense of division, even estrangement.

As the 2014 Pew Research study on polarization found, 63% of consistently conservative Americans liked elected officials who “stick to their positions,” while 32% prefer ones who make compromises.

Yet 82% of consistent liberals espoused having leaders who compromised, with only 14% saying they should “stick to their positions.”

From "Political Polarization in the American Public," Pew Research Center, June 2014.

From “Political Polarization in the American Public,” Pew Research Center, June 2014.

What complicates this is that while liberals strongly favored compromise when posed broadly, Pew found that liberals “are about as likely as conservatives to want political agreements that favor their side.” So perhaps we can make too much of this.

Moreover, as Jonathan Weiler and Marc Hetherington discussed in Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, authoritarianism is found more among Republicans than Democrats.

As Weiler pointed out, one component of authoritarianism is an “us versus them” mentality. What complicates the picture is that authoritarianism especially characterizes Trump supporters and they were the Republican voters most saying they found the nomination fight most energizing.

So while there is greater dislike for compromise among Republicans, estrangement based on real disagreements about Trump, a candidate from outside the GOP who exhibits undemocratic norms, as well as greater policy differences between candidates, are critical to more Republican than Democratic disunity.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.