WASHINGTON — Whether it's the Republicans or the Democrats, America's political parties are far from beloved. Yet most people continue to align with one or the other.
Those who claim allegiance to the parties say they are driven by a mix of inertia, preference for one side's policies over the other and feeling that one can depart from the party line when necessary, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll. Despite heated politics, few say they prefer one party out of dislike for the other.
But affiliation doesn't always equal admiration: One-quarter of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats say they dislike their own party.
Asked what it means when a person says he or she is a Democrat or a Republican, few mention longtime affinity. More people focus on the beliefs or attitudes held by the most visible members of the party.
Around 6 in 10 Americans say they identify with one of the nation's two major parties. That figure rises to nearly 8 in 10 when those who say they lean toward either party are included. Yet both Democrats and Republicans inspire unfavorable views by a majority of Americans, including one-quarter who say they dislike both of them.
About a third go so far as to say they distrust both parties to handle some of the most basic functions of government: 35 percent trust neither party to handle the federal budget, and 34 percent trust neither Democrats nor Republicans to manage the federal government or address the concerns of "people like me."
For a sizable minority, that distrust extends to many issues central to the nation's politics, including the economy, immigration, health care and America's image overseas. Across all 11 issues asked about in the survey, more than 1 in 5 said they lack faith in either party to handle each issue well.
So why choose a party at all?
Two reasons are cited as strong factors by about 4 in 10 in each party: They generally like the party's policies, and they have been Republicans or Democrats for as long as they can remember. About a third of Republicans and a quarter of Democrats say that despite their association with a party, they don't completely agree with what the party stands for. A small share in each party say their affiliation stems from a dislike of the other side.
Thirty percent of Democrats say that liking the party's candidates is a strong part of their Democratic identity; that slips slightly to 23 percent among Republicans.
The survey also assessed views of partisans from the outside looking in, asking what it means when someone describes himself or herself as a Republican, a Democrat or an independent.
As the nation's two major parties have become increasingly polarized, perceptions of those who affiliate with them reflect that trend. To 22 percent of Americans, when people call themselves Republicans, it means they're conservative, and 24 percent say that when people describe themselves as Democrats, it means they're liberal. In 2003, a Pew Research Center survey asking the same question found that 17 percent associated Republicans with conservatism, and 16 percent connected Democrats and liberalism.
Beyond ideology, Americans react to self-professed Republicans by thinking they support the wealthy or businesses (21 percent), vote for Republican candidates or agree with the party's issue positions (9 percent), or support a smaller government (7 percent). Views on Democrats are more varied, but 7 percent each say Democrats are for working people, support bigger government or more spending, or depend too heavily on government.
Few choose to describe either party using personal attacks; about 5 percent did when asked about Republicans and 9 percent did when asked about Democrats. But cross-party descriptions skew more negative and coalesce around certain traits. Nine percent of Democrats use terms including "closed-minded," ''racist" or "self-centered" to describe Republicans, and 16 percent of Republicans choose words such as "dumb," ''lazy" or "immoral" when asked about Democrats.
Highlighting the variation between parties, the poll even found differences in what Republicans and Democrats hear when someone tells them his or her party affiliation. Republicans seize on issues and ideology, while Democrats tend to focus on attitudes or attributes.
A Republican in the survey described the GOP by highlighting issues central to the party's identity: "Small government, strong national defense, conservative social policies, more self-reliant people rather than people looking for Uncle Sam to support them financially."
A typical Democrat, on the other hand, described her party's approach to policy: "They have a social conscience and care about the underdog more than those in the upper socio-economic classes."
The AP-GfK Poll was conducted May 16-19 using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,354 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points for all respondents.
Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.