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US Voters Become More Polarized

In this year's presidential election there is a lot of talk about going after so-called "swing votes" or independent voters who are not wedded to either the Democratic or Republican parties. These voters often split their ballots, voting for the candidate of one party for president and candidates of the other party for the other offices. But research shows there are fewer true independent voters as the electorate has become increasingly polarized. VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Austin, Texas.

Austin, the capital of Texas, is often called a liberal island in a conservative sea.

People here tend to vote Democratic, while Texas, as a whole, is overwhelmingly Republican.

Support for Barack Obama is evident all over town.

Some Republicans live here, of course. Melissa is one of them. She says, "We pretty much keep the political aspect of our life to those who we know have the same views, but when we are talking socially, we talk to our friends about other subjects," Melissa said.

Melissa reflects a national trend: Americans of different political leanings are talking less and less to each other.

It may have a lot to do with where people choose to live, according to Bill Bishop, co-author of "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart."

"When people decide where to move and they make choices about where to move, they are also making these political choices that are then self-reinforcing," Bishop said.

Bishop says people who live in cities tend to vote Democratic, but people in suburbs and rural areas tend to be Republicans, "Generally, the farther people live apart, the more Republican the place," Bishop said.

But the result is that neighbors reinforce each others' political views and become less tolerant of those who hold different views.

"It makes people angry because they cannot understand why there is disagreement when all around them all they see is agreement," Bishop said.

This tendency has been reinforced by the polarization of some news outlets that base much of their coverage and commentary on their ideological bent.

Bishop says election statistics over the past few decades confirm his thesis that the country is becoming more polarized politically, "Thirty years ago there were more people who did split tickets, that has been declining," he said. "Thirty years ago there were more truly independent people and that has been declining."

Bishop finds a dramatic rise in landslide counties in the United States, those that provide a 20-percent margin in favor of one candidate or the other.

In 1976, around 27 percent of US counties were landslide counties. By 2004, the number had grown to nearly 50 percent.

Bishop says hope for a less-polarized future lies with the younger generations - not with the so-called baby boomers, who are now in their 50's and 60s.

"Baby boomers are great on judging and defining things as good or bad, black or white, Democrat or Republican," Bishop said. "Younger people, you can see, are not as anxious to make those distinctions."

For now, however, the political model may be best represented by this Austinite who calls himself Dale:

Dale: "I think the lines are pretty hardened already."

Reporter: "Is that good or bad for America?"

Dale: "It would be good if everybody would agree with me."