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David Hill: Gridlock won’t go away soon

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Thoughtful political observers would agree that when it comes to partisan and ideological conflict, Republicans and Democrats and conservatives and liberals have been closely matched in successes for decades. Admittedly, in some states and in some years one side or the other enjoys an advantage, but if you are keeping score on the nation as a whole, all sides are closely matched, enough so that we often speak of “partisan gridlock” as evidence that no party or ideology is “winning” the war, only some battles here and there. 

Typically we observe this gridlock in legislative roll calls or inaction, or in electoral phenomena like split-ticket voting, split-outcome results and partisan turnover in administrations. But what if we try to assess winners and losers among the partisans and ideologues by looking at public opinion and polls?

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In the aggregate, more Americans think of themselves as Democrats than as Republicans, yet more of us also think of ourselves as conservatives than as liberals. It’s another of those frustrating split outcomes. To make any sense of it, you have to tie party and ideology to economic or social issues. 

Americans come closer to embracing Democrats and liberals on social issues while embracing Republicans and conservatives on economic issues. These are admittedly broad generalizations, but they are fair. And they reinforce the main point of this column, that neither side is winning or losing in any universal sense of victory. It’s only on scattered battlefields that we see any trends.

On several social issues, the liberal and Democrat perspectives are trending. The most persuasive evidence for this is polling on the topic of same-sex marriage, where majority opposition has been flipped to support over the past decade. Almost as definitive is the clear trend toward support for some legalization of marijuana. A fair reading of polls also demonstrates that tolerance toward immigrants and immigration is growing over time.

There are some other issues where “gridlock” describes public opinion as well as it does political process. One of these topics is global warming. Liberals and Democrats can gloat that there is limited but discernible growth in perceptions that warming or climate change is genuine or real. But conservatives and Republicans can take solace in the fact that few Americans believe this trend is so real that it will affect them personally in their lifetimes. And both sides can be stumped by polls that find no clear sense of trend on the causes or nature of “global warming.”

Other “stuck” issues, where no long-term trend is evident, include abortion and perceptions of the tax burden. Despite all the ammunition fired on these two issues by Republicans and conservatives, victory is not in sight.

Several issues seem to exhibit a trend that favors Republican positions and conservative ideologies. An example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where, over time, there is growth in sympathies for the Israeli perspective. A careful reading of poll results on the issue of gun control also suggests that over the last decade Americans have become less supportive of stricter gun controls, in spite of some reactions to widely publicized shooting tragedies that might suggest that gun control advocates are swaying public opinion. On the whole, they are not. On a related topic, American are also not growing softer on the death penalty. If anything, support for capital punishment is hardening somewhat.

But any and all of these trends are muted. None portend a fundamental shift in American politics. The point of this review of big-picture polling results is that while each side has a few winning issues, neither side enjoys a significant advantage on a salient topic sufficient to break the partisan deadlock through issue-based debate. There is no “realigning issue” that threatens to bring victory to any camp any time soon.

Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican campaigns and causes since 1984.