All indications are that this year’s U.S. presidential election will be a close contest between the incumbent Democrat, President Barack Obama, and his presumptive Republican challenger, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. One of the reasons why the election is expected to be close is that the United States remains a politically polarized nation.
America’s political polarization has been building for decades. Partisan battles in Congress over budgets and the size of government combined with lengthy struggles over social issues like abortion and gay marriage have made it harder for partisans from both parties to come together and compromise.
Peter Brown is with the Quinnipiac Polling Institute, which conducts regular public opinion surveys on political issues and candidates around the country.
“We live in a polarized country. We also live in a country where there are many different types of people who have different values and different life styles," said Brown. "For instance, what we know is that if you live in an urban area you are more likely to vote Democratic. If you live in a rural area you are more likely to vote Republican.”
The political polarization is evident in many forms. For example, whites who are married and attend church regularly tend to vote Republican, while non-whites who are single and less religious tend to support Democrats.
In recent decades a gender gap has also developed in U.S. politics. Democrats tend to do better among women while Republicans tend to have an advantage among men. It should be noted these are trends that are subject to slight fluctuations from one election cycle to the next.
In the latest Quinnipiac poll, Peter Brown found what he calls a growing marriage gap among voters looking ahead to the November presidential match-up between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney.
“Consider that Mr. Obama has a 20-point lead among single people. Mr. Romney has a 13-point lead among married voters. That is a huge gap,” said Brown.
Divide over government role
A major divide that emerged in recent years is how Americans see the role of the central government. A recent Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll found 49 percent of those surveyed believe the government should do more to help people, while 47 percent said the government is already doing too much.
Americans frequently register their frustration over polarized politics in public opinion polls where majorities urge both parties to drop their focus on ideology and seek compromise.
Voters give Congress very low ratings, in large part because U.S. lawmakers often find themselves in partisan gridlock and unable to get anything done.
Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said partisans in Congress spend too much time staking out partisan positions on issues and too little time looking for common ground.
“Where it moves into a territory that damages the congressional reputation is if you don’t supplement that with at least some attempt at problem solving in other areas," said Ornstein. "Position taking is fine if problem solving is a part of what is in the mix, and at this point it is almost all position taking and no problem solving.”
Experts say voters contribute to the polarization by following partisan voting patterns and, in some cases, electing members of Congress who vow to stand on their political principles, which makes it difficult for them to compromise later.
Partisan voting trends
John Fortier of the Bipartisan Policy Center said Americans increasingly are voting for political candidates from only one of the two major parties.
“There is also this very regular voting pattern that people have come to follow, and the number of people who are willing to vote for president of one party and a member of Congress of another has gone down dramatically,” said Fortier.
So far, though, frustration with the two major political parties has not resulted in widespread interest in a new third party or in any of the other smaller political parties that appear on U.S. election ballots every four years.
Dr. Jill Stein is well aware of how difficult it is for smaller parties in the U.S. to get the attention of voters. She is this year’s presidential nominee of the Green Party, a party with roots in Europe that stresses respect for the environment.
“America, unfortunately, has gotten into this two-party thing where they have a lot of money, they are getting all the corporate money, which keeps them sort of locked into defending the status quo," Stein said. "That is not good for change and it is not good for the American people.”
The United States traditionally has a two-party system, but from time to time third parties have emerged and had an impact in presidential elections, notably in 1912 and 1992.
But an effort to launch a third-party alternative this year under the banner of Americans Elect faltered when organizers were unable to settle on a national candidate to run in November.