Many pundits and observers have suggested that American society is ripped apart by ideological divergence of social groups. Are moderates disappearing from the political landscape due to centrifugal tendencies? We examine whether candidates from the two major parties still have ideological overlap. Mapping various factions in the Democratic and Republican Parties challenges the popular portrait of contemporary American politics as increasingly partisan, with black-and-white differences between those supportive of and oppositional to President Donald Trump. While the Trump Presidency has certainly galvanized politicians and voters to make uncompromising “us vs. them” statements, this binary masks significant variation within each party—both in terms of policy positions and candidates’ approach to the current political situation. Republicans have, for the most part, coalesced around Trump’s unconventional Presidency, yet sharp differences remain in how different camps approach issues like trade, immigration, and the environment. While Democrats in Congress have sought to maintain a unified “resistance” to Republican legislation and Trump’s divisive rhetoric, many of the fissures exposed in the 2016 primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have reemerged forcefully as the party tests out political strategies and candidates to win this November and in 2020. Looking at the results of our study, we find that economic issues had more centripetal effect, bringing candidates from both parties towards the center, while social issues had centrifugal effects resulting in greater polarization. Overall, by mapping candidates representative of various factions within each party on a two-dimensional ideological spectrum and comparing them to where voters stand, the complexity of policy debates in American politics is reinforced.
We identify four factions within the Democratic Party: Liberals, Conservative Democrats, Progressives, and Democratic Socialists. Despite two years of Trump’s Presidency to unify the opposition, many of the same fissures that split the Democratic Party during the bruising Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders primary fight in 2016 have been amplified rather than diminished. Once fringe ideas like single-payer healthcare and free college tuition have been pushed by figures like Sanders and Warren into the mainstream of the party. The unanticipated loss to Trump still hangs heavily over intra-party debates as some Democrats advocate a moderate approach to win back voters, while an increasing number of party leaders seem to be making a hard break towards support for leftist policy proposals, or focusing their efforts on energizing new and minority voters with strong progressive appeals to issues like abortion access or LGBT protections. While the #Resistance has served as a rallying cry for most Democrats over the past two years, the position maps importantly show how the optics of anti-Trumpness can mask real differences in policy.
Liberals blend progressive social stances with more moderate pro-business economic policies. On the map, we see how support for issues like expanded free-trade agreements and corporate tax cuts pull our Liberal candidate Diane Feinstein (California) to the right on economic issues relative the other Democratic factions—despite her support for issues like new LGBT non-discrimination laws and protections for undocumented children (DREAMers) that leave her solidly in the upper half of the map, along the progressive-conservative social spectrum.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton, emblematic of the Liberal faction of the party, won the party’s protracted nomination fight against leftist insurgent Bernie Sanders (Vermont). While many older leaders of this faction, such as Ms. Clinton and her running mate Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, trace their political roots to the centrist “New Democrat” label championed in the 90s by her husband Bill, they have grown more progressive alongside the country on social issues like gun control, abortion rights, gay marriage, immigration reform and climate change. Despite these progressive stances, Liberals still shy away from Left-wing economic policies, instead preferring business-friendly stances such as expanded free trade and lower taxation. While they level critiques at the foreign policies of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, many Liberals similarly advocate for strong, interventionist stances like new sanctions against Iran and Russia and maintaining a large military presence abroad.
First elected in 1992, Senator Diane Feinstein of California [mapped above] is emblematic of the Liberal wing of the party, her stances falling towards the center of the left-right economic spectrum while falling clearly on the libertarian/progressive side of the social dimension. While Feinstein logs support for many of the same agenda items as the Progressives, she has so far resisted calls to support key leftist efforts like single-payer healthcare.
Conservative Democrats support conservative social positions—such as opposition to abortion, gun control measures, and environmental regulations—stances that may seem more at home in the Republican Party. In contrast with Republican leaders in Congress, however, these Democrats typically stake out more left-populist economic stances, supporting unions and opposing free trade agreements. While Conservative Democrats once constituted a large part of the national party, this group has seen its numbers dwindle in recent years. Recently, this group has received intense national media attention as several key figures—such as Heidi Heitkamp (North Dakota), Joe Manchin (West Virginia), and Conor Lamb (Pennsylvania- 18th)—seek to defend seats they hold in areas that voted heavily for Trump in 2016. As the political environment in the United States continues to polarize, Conservative Democrats are left in an uncomfortable position trying to mitigate the influence of the progressive wing of their party in order to still win many of the conservative white working-class areas that have swung to the Republican Party in recent decades.
Mapping Joe Manchin’s positions [above] reinforces just how conservative many of his stances are even in comparison to more moderate Republicans. A harsh critic of anti-coal environmental regulations, pro-life, and a supporter of President Trump’s border wall, Manchin purposefully breaks with his party on key votes—like the Kavanaugh confirmation—to remain electorally viable in a state that went for Trump by 42 points. Remaining faithful to West Virginia’s working class unionized roots, however, Manchin stakes out positions like increasing import tariffs that actually place him farther to the left on economic issues than the pro-business liberal wing of the party represented by Feinstein.
In recent years, a new generation of leaders has emerged within the Democratic party, expressing unapologetically progressive views on both social and economic issues. Rather than appeal to centrist voters (as many Liberal, and earlier Clinton-era Democrats do), senators like Kamala Harris (California), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), and Kirsten Gillibrand (New York) focus their attention on leftist policy proposals like enacting a “single-payer” state-run healthcare system, higher minimum wages (“Fight for $15”), and corporate tax increases to pay for expanded social services. Progressives are also not afraid to rebuke politicians and the state for exclusionary or conservative social policies—with issues such as transgender bathroom access, racism in policing, and the abolishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authority (I.C.E.) as key rallying points. While identity politics do heavily inflect how Progressives approach their opposition to the Trump administration, there are differences of opinion within the camp about whether Democrats should focus more of their rhetoric on populist economic issues like income inequality, or on cultural politics to motivate a coalition of women, minorities, and young people.
Progressive leader Elizabeth Warren’s economic policy positions place her clearly to the left of Liberals like Diane Feinstein [see map]. While Progressives share their criticism of free trade initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin, their social progressivism places the group in the upper-left corner of the ideological map, unlike Manchin. As the ideological map demonstrates, Progressives share many positions with the “Democratic Socialist” Bernie supporters—their differences often lying in disagreements over whether leftist change can emerge from within the structure of the Democratic Party, or not.
Bernie Sander’s 2016 primary campaign introduced American voters to more radically left positions than the Democratic party dared previously take, in turn spawning a small but influential “democratic socialist” political movement. The group can take credit for moving left-leaning proposals like single-payer healthcare and free college tuition from being fringe to mainstream progressive ideas. In 2018, several Sanders-backed candidates identified as “democratic socialists” like Rashida Tliab (Michigan-13th) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York—14th ) scored primary victories setting them up to win their heavily-Democratic districts this November. Many “democratic socialist” candidates have received endorsements from Sanders’ Our Revolution political action committee, or are members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the rapidly growing, and largest, socialist political organization in the United States. Self-described “democratic socialists” have a complicated relationship to the Democratic Party, viewing it both as an obstacle to a leftist “revolution” in American politics, yet also as the only viable vessel to political power in a two-party system.
Interestingly, Democratic Socialist figure-head Bernie Sanders falls quite close to Progressive Elizabeth Warren on an ideological map—the two sharing many of the same left-progressive policy positions. The “democratic socialist” wing is unafraid, however, of aggressively challenging traditional norms in American politics on issues such as American support of Israel or corporate governance structures. Although Democratic Socialists are extremely progressive on cultural issues, much like Progressives, Democratic Socialists approach most issues with a clear Marxist-influenced focus on class-inequality. While, in theory, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) platform calls for the abolition of capitalism and the replacement of the private sector with state-owned enterprises and worker-controlled firms, many “democratic socialists” would be better classified as “social democrats” in a European context.
The Republican Party can be divided into five key strains: Establishment Conservatives, Moderate Republicans, Libertarians, Trump Populists, and Right-wing Crusaders—as demonstrated by five representative candidates coded and mapped based on their policy positions [see map]. As the current governing party in Washington, Republicans do their best to mask internal divisions and rally around President Trump. Trump’s unconventional approach to governance and strident positions on key areas like foreign policy and trade policy differ from those of many Republicans, as the position mapping shows. Aside from a small number of “Never Trumpers,” who tend to come from either the Establishment or Moderate wings, Republicans have generally gone along with the Trump-driven shift from support for free trade to an embrace of tariffs, from internationalism to a position closer to isolationism. Many commentators point out how Republicans who just years ago threatened to shut down the government instead of increase the national debt, passed President Trumps tax-cut bill last year adding billions to the annual deficit. Minus the small Moderate and Libertarian strains within the Party, President Trump’s hardline approach to cultural issues like immigration have pushed much of the party further down the conservative spectrum of the map—farther from the moderate, compromising approach to politics embodied by the party’s two former nominees for president John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Establishment Conservatives pursue both right-leaning economic policy and conservative social policy, placing them squarely in the bottom right quadrant of the graph. Establishment Conservatives constitute the traditional core of the Party in recent decades—including many current Congressional leaders like Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and outgoing U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan (Wisconsin-1st). Tracing their political roots to the Conservative Movement swept into power by Ronald Regan and continued by the Bushes, Establishment Conservatives are at once social conservatives on issues like abortion and gay rights, and fiscal conservatives on issues of taxation and spending. With deep ideological support for private enterprise, Establishment Conservatives favor cuts to social programs domestically, and neoliberal pro-business economic policy abroad. Since Trump beat out many establishment candidates in the 2016 primaries, leaders of this group like McConnell have largely followed the policy agenda of the President, dropping much of their previous obsession with controlling the deficit, or support for free-trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. While many Establishment Conservatives in the Senate do not face reelection this fall, Deb Fischer is set to cruise to victory in Nebraska with a classic mix of social and economic conservatism, while avoiding much of the extreme posturing on cultural issues of Trump Populists and Right-wing Crusaders that draw their candidates farther down the Libertarian-Conservative dimension of the map.
While on the economy Moderate Republicans support traditional Republican Party efforts to lower taxes and cut spending, they often break with their party on social issues to support gay rights, abortion access, and environmental regulation to combat climate change. While Moderate Republicans have lost clout within their own party, they still hold significant influence as swing votes in national politics. Moderate Republicans value bipartisanship and compromise in governance, even working with Democrats to craft legislation on issues like immigration and health-care reform. Moderate leaders like Susan Collins (Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) in the Senate come under intense national scrutiny for their power to make or break key votes—like the failed Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare, or the successful nomination of Brett Kavanagh to the Supreme Court.
Carlos Curbelo, a young Latino representative from Florida is co-chair of the Tuesday Group (a caucus of moderate Republicans in the House), supporting progressive policy stances such as a ban on assault weapons, and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. While Curbelo’s stances on economic policy place him on the right, his social views are fairly progressive—even mapping more liberal than Conservative Democrat Joe Manchin (West Virginia). Unlike Manchin who supports the roll-back of Obama administration environmental regulations against coal and oil drilling, Curbelo opposes the Trump Administration’s climate-change denial.
Libertarians believe in extremely limited government, placing them to the right on economic issues, but are fairly liberal on the cultural dimension [see map for Amash]. As a small but consistent strain amid the “small-government” ethos of the modern Republican Party, they are adherents to a strictly limited interpretation of the American Constitution that believes the federal government in Washington D.C. has far outgrown it’s intended size and scope. Basing their views on a deep ideological mistrust of the state rather than political expediency, Libertarians are unafraid to take policy positions in opposition to many social conservatives within their own party. Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky), and before him his father Ron Paul, are well-known for their vocal opposition to mainstream interventionist Republican foreign policy, and their willingness to take up passively liberal stances on social issues like marijuana legalization and gay rights. Justin Amash, leader of the House Liberty Caucus, voted against his party on issues such as arms sales to Saudi Arabia, yet vocally opposes government “overreach” in areas that range the full partisan gambit from limited gun-control measures to marijuana criminalization. It is important to note that while Amash’s Libertarian views map him very close to a moderate Republican like Curbelo, the issues (e.g. foreign policy vs. environmental regulations) leading to a this close positioning are quite different.
Trump appeals to many of the most conservative factions of the Republican electorate (such as Evangelical Christians) by aggressively invoking conservative cultural politics on issues like gun control and immigration. Yet, Trump also challenges many Establishment Republican norms in policy areas like trade and foreign affairs. This Trumpian policy mix places figures like Corey Stewart—Republican candidate for Virginia governor—far down on the socially conservative ideological axis but slightly to left of more traditional Establishment Republicans like Deb Fischer [see map]. Commentators note that while most Republicans have gone along with Trump’s norm-defying Presidency—tying their electoral fortunes to his popularity this fall—many are still uncomfortable with his willingness to slap tariffs on Chinese goods, or cozy-up to autocrats like Kim-Jong Un or Vladimir Putin. While the staying power of these unusual views in the “post-Trump” Republican Party is much up-in-the-air, many politicians are riding Trump’s nativist coattails this Fall, echoing his hardline approach to immigration enforcement and quasi-populist support for domestic manufacturing through increased tariffs and rolled-back environmental regulations. While some space still separates candidates like Joe Manchin and Corey Stewert on our map, both are competing for many of the same “white working class” voters to whom Trump so appeals—a fact underlined by their surprisingly close position on the map and shared policy issues like increasing import tariffs.
“Right-wing Crusaders” differ from Establishment Conservatives less in terms of the general mix of their policy positions than the intensity of their conservative social and economic beliefs that place them at the far right-bottom of the ideological map. Arising in force out of the Tea-Party Movement in the 2010 midterms, this group takes an uncompromising view towards advancing their aims such as slashing spending to balance the federal budget, or passing “religious freedom” laws that allow businesses to deny service to gay couples. In the U.S. House of Representatives, a group of such Right-wing crusaders, the Freedom Caucus, exert power by voting in a block, even going so far as to torpedo efforts by their own party leadership to repeal Obamacare since such legislation did not “go far enough”. Ted Cruz (Texas)—the only member of the Freedom caucus in the Senate—is a leading figure within this archconservative corner of the Republican Party. As our map demonstrates, Cruz’s strong conservative social beliefs on issues like the border wall with Mexico coupled with his pro-business economic opinions put him farthest down towards the bottom-right corner of the ideological spectrum.
A survey of 2296 American voters, of whom 1246 planning to vote for a Republican candidate, and 948 for a Democratic candidate in the upcoming midterm elections, was conducted from October 19-29. Respondents were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the same twenty key policy statements used to map the candidates above. Both party voter groups are concentrated in opposite quadrants of the two-dimensional political spectrum—the self-identified Democrats in the Left-Progressive corner, and the self-identified Republicans in the Right-Conservative one. It is interesting to note how the orientation of the spatial density of Republicans is more horizontal than Democrats, indicating a closer agreement on issue statements about social policy and foreign policy among Republicans, and a wider range of views on economic policy issues. In recent years, President Trump and populist faction candidates like Corey Stewart (Virginia) have introduced economically left positions on trade issues, such as the introduction of tariffs and opposition to expanded free-trade agreements, into Republican Party politics—offering one possible explanation for Republican’s more horizontal dispersion across the left-right spectrum.
The highest concentrations of Democratic respondents are found both to the left of Liberal faction leader Diane Feinstein on the economic spectrum, and more progressive than her on the vertical social spectrum. This is good news for Progressive Democrats and Democrat Socialists who have been aiming to pull the party to the left in recent years—advancing proposals like state-run “single-payer” healthcare that only a couple of years ago were completely off the party’s agenda. The core of Republican respondents are concentrated in the region of the spatial map occupied by candidates like Establishment Conservative Deb Fischer (NE), Trump Populist Corey Stewart (VA) and Right Wing Crusader Ted Cruz (TX).
The voter heatmaps also reveal several outlier candidates whose mix of policy positions place them far from major concentrations of their party voters. A proud Conservative Democrat, Joe Manchin (WV) actually finds more overlap of his political positioning with Republican voters than with the core of his own party’s supporters. To win as a Democrat in a state Trump carried with 68.5% of the vote to Clinton’s 26.43% in 2016, Manchin must appeal to many Republican-leaning voters—as underlined by mapping his policy positions in this report. On the Republican side, Moderate Republican Carlos Curbelo and Libertarian Justin Amash find themselves away from the vast majority of their party’s voters—a fact that may explain why their factions constitute such small portions of the Republican Party’s elected officials.
While this report sheds light on how policy positions are related to candidates’ and voters’ party or factional identities, it is crucial to recognize the idiosyncrasies and regional specificities to political labels in the United States. West Virginia, for example, has a long tradition of electing Democrats that stretches back more than a century. While both Joe Manchin and many West Virginia voters may actually seem to align more in their views with elements of the Republican Party, longtime party loyalty keeps a Conservative Democrat like Manchin competitive in a deeply conservative state. Similarly, Carlos Curbelo can stake out relatively progressive views on issues like LGBT rights and immigration reform as a Republican in Miami, relying on the long tradition of Cuban-Americans in Miami supporting the Republican Party. On a final note, we analyzed self-described independents (who constitute a very small portion of respondents) and found them to be scattered across the entire ideological spectrum. Rather than being concentrated at the political center, independents can be found in just as extreme the corners of the ideological spectrum as those American voters identifying with one of the two main parties.
The graphs above displays the positions of various candidates running for office within the Republican and Democratic parties in the US on a two-dimensional spatial map, constructed on the basis of 20 salient issue statements related to strongly relevant policy issues in the current political debate. The most salient issues were selected by a team of academics and experts, based on a close examination of the parties' platforms and political (media) discourse. Each of the statements pertains to a policy proposal that can be framed as either “left-“ or “right-wing”, “socially progressive” or “socially conservative”. The statement answers are 5-point scales with answer categories ranging from “completely disagree”, to “disagree” to “neutral” to “agree” to “completely agree”. The positions of candidates on these statements are coded in accordance with their official stances on the issues, as expressed by their published policies, campaign documents and media appearances.
The spatial map is constructed on the basis of the aggregate positions of the parties on the two dimensions (the left-right dimension and the progressive-conservative dimension). The precise candidate position is located in the centres of the ellipses. The ellipses represent the standard deviations of the candidate answers to all statements used to construct each axis. Thus, candidates in favour of both left- and right-wing policy proposals have a wider ellipse on the left-right axis; candidates in favour of both socially progressive and socially conservative policy proposals have a lengthier ellipse on the progressive-conservative axis.
For the Heatmaps the voters are recorded using a ten-stage “propensity to vote” variable, in which the respondents indicate the probability to vote for the respective parties. Voters are classified as those respondents that have indicated a propensity of 8, 9 or 10 on the ten-stage scale. The average political position of those voters is shown in the centre of the ellipsis.
Andrew Pasquier - freelance researcher for Election Compass who studied Political Science and Urban Affairs at Columbia University in New York.
Tia di Salvo - Senior public relations and political science student at Hofstra University.
André Krouwel - VU University Amsterdam / Founder of Kieskompas BV
Yordan Kutiyski - Analyst - Kieskompas BV
Ognjan Denkovski – Analyst- Kieskompas BV
Oscar Moreda Laguna - General operations manager - Kieskompas BV
Oliver Philipp - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Berlin
Arne Schildberg - Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Berlin