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U.S. Election Fuels Political Partisanship

The man President Bush called the architect of his successful re-election, Karl Rove, is rarely in the spotlight. Yet he briefly took center stage after the election victory. On a Fox News television program, he asserted that Republicans could be in power for decades. “Would I like to see the Republican Party be the dominant party for whatever time history gives it the chance to be?” he said. “You bet. I believe in the principles of the Republican Party.”

About 60 million Americans voted for President Bush, awarding him more ballots than any other president in US history. Although his challenger, Senator John Kerry, fell short by 3.5 million votes, that was enough to win the presidency in all previous elections. The contest drew one of the highest voter turnouts in US history -- nearly 60 %. Why did each candidate do so well?

Tim Hibbits is a leading independent pollster in the western state of Oregon. He says enormous loyalty in both political parties brought more voters to the ballot box. “I think the last election was a highly partisan election, and I think a significant number of people who identified clearly as Republicans or Democrats were strongly supportive of their party's nominee,” he said.

Data from a long-term University of Michigan study indicate such partisanship has been on the rise since the late 1970s. Nicholas Valentino, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, says that today one in three Americans strongly identify with either the Republican or Democratic Party. “The number of people who say they were strong partisans in 1978 was 23%,” he said. “The number of people who say they are strong partisans now is 33%. So it is an increase in strong partisanship.”

Professor Valentino says exit polls after the election revealed another trend: an increase in the number of independent voters. However, the notion that up to a third of US voters are independent is misleading. Most lean toward one party or the other. Only about one in ten Americans are altogether independent, never identifying with either party. “There is evidence showing that more people are willing to say I'm independent, but also more people are taking very strong positions on partisanship,” he said. “In other words, there is polarization. So what has happened is people in between those two extremes have started to decrease. Either people are very strong in their feelings or they want to insist they are mostly neutral or independent.”

Pollster Tim Hibbits adds that the two main political parties are strongly identifying with core issues on opposite sides of the ideological fence. “Parties and issues are blending to a degree,” he said. “It used you to be you had a more moderate liberal republican wing and a more conservative democratic wing within those parties. Now the parties are lining up more ideologically.”

But Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, says social issues like same sex marriage and abortion were not as important in the recent presidential election as the media reported. “The exit poll focus on cultural and moral values was almost laughable,” he said. ‘That has been there for many years. It was not the number-one issue. Terrorism and Iraq were the main issues by far.”

Mr. Sabato says the global war on terror has added to more partisanship. He believes that the trend towards intense party loyalty will continue to rise. This, in turn, will sharply define differences between Democrats and Republicans.