Red-state, blue-state divide overblown, BYU study shows

Published: Tuesday, June 7 2011 5:00 p.m. MDT

So-called "red" and "blue" states are actually various shades of purple, much less polarized and divided among the overall citizenry than party politics would have us think, according to researchers at BYU and the University of Pennsylvania.

Their study, published in Public Opinion Quarterly, said the chances of a red-state citizen scoring more liberal than a blue-state citizen is 46 percent on economic issues and 51 percent on social issues.

For the study, the researchers used Utah as a red state Utah and New York for blue. It would work just as well with any two states viewed as opposite, said Jeremy Pope, assistant professor of political science at BYU and a research fellow with the school's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "I could do it with Massachusetts and Idaho, for example," he said, and results would be the same: "The actual opinions of people are going to overlap much more.... No state has a really homogenous population."

Even with New York and Utah, considered polar opposites on the liberal-conservative scale, the researchers calculated that 77 percent of voters in the two states have common ground for social policy and 69 percent for economic issues.

So while there's little chance that President Obama would carry an election in Utah, for instance, the state still has a complicated population that includes really conservative and moderately conservative and moderately liberal and really liberal citizens. "And even the conservatives are not always as conservative as you might think," Pope said.

The elected officials on the state and "even more on the national level," on the other hand, "tend to be highly polarized, disparate groups that don't agree on anything," Pope said. "....Regular voters are not highly ideological in the way political parties are."

You can find a poster child who represents how the state is viewed politically, he said. But while some people are conservative straight down the party line, you will in any conservative state also see people who are "pretty conservative on some issues and moderate on some." And the same is true in degrees of being liberal.

"It's good for us to understand the country is not made up of two warring campaigns," Pope said. It's also important to see beyond stereotypes to the fact that America is a complex society, he noted.

Pope and co-author Matt Levendusky of Penn looked at data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a national survey "that has a ton of respondents — enough to characterize each state," Pope said. The researchers were able to create a measure of how liberal or conservative different respondents were. That let them measure and "directly comment on the degree of overlap between red and blue states," as they wrote in their abstract.

"Moving beyond just looking at the mean opinion in states gives a richer and more interesting picture of opinion in the American states," they wrote.

It also means, they noted, that "enterprising politicans can construct different types of governing coalitions in the same state. New York and California can elect Republican governors while Montana and Wyoming can elect Democratic governors. Even the constituency with the most lopsided partisan balance can elect officials from the opposite party if local politicians act appropriately."

They cite as one example the fact that in the 1990s a moderate Democrat represented Utah's 3rd District, "one of the most conservative and Republican districts in the country."

And while they agreed that an analysis of why — if citizens of red and blue states are so similar but elected officials are not — would lead the research "too far afield," they said they "suspect this points to the key role played by electoral institutions," including primary elections, simple plurality districts and other factors that "mean that even small shifts in opinion can translate into large differences in outcomes," as demonstrated in one of Levendusky's earlier studies.

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com

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