Talking Points

The 9 categories of American voter

It seems like every few weeks, a news organization or polling outfit releases a new schematic breakdown of American public opinion, complete with a fun, breezy quiz that makes it possible for readers to place themselves in one of the proposed groups. The latest of these, released this week by the Pew Research Center is more interesting, illuminating, and methodologically rigorous than most, giving us a data-driven ultrasound of the American electorate.

"Beyond Red and Blue: The Political Typology," lays out nine categories of voter, four roughly aligned with each of the country's two major parties, and one alienated by and ideologically equidistant from both.

Beginning on the left, Pew finds several types of Democrats. There are members of a Progressive Left, who are majority white/non-Hispanic and aim for sweeping change across a range of policies and cultural attitudes, and Establishment Liberals, who advocate for less dramatic change. Then there are Democratic Mainstays, who are very loyal to the party but older, more conservative on some issues, and more racially diverse. (This is also the largest of the left-leaning blocs in the electorate as a whole.) And finally, there is the Outsider Left, which is the youngest group on the left and most deeply frustrated by the political system and Democratic establishment. At 28 percent, the Outsider Left is also the largest group among committed Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents.

The right, meanwhile, is divided among three groups or styles of conservatives: Faith and Flag Conservatives are furthest right on most issues, eschewing compromise and affirming a strong role for religion in American public life; Committed Conservatives hold somewhat more moderate views of immigration and believe in a more internationalist foreign policy with America in a leadership role; finally, there's the Populist Right, which is mostly rural and diverges from the other groups in favoring strong immigration restrictions and criticizing big business. That leaves a fourth group — the Ambivalent Right — that is younger, less uniformly conservative, and more critical of Donald Trump than the members of the other groups.

Standing apart from all of these options are the Stressed Sideliners, who make up about 15 percent of the electorate overall and draw almost equally from both sides of the partisan divide. These voters have a mix of conservative and liberal views but are distinguished mainly by their relative disengagement from politics.

Analysis of these findings could go in any number of directions — and the lengthy Pew report explores many of them in detail. For me, the most interesting tidbit has to do with the possibility (or lack thereof) of persuasion across the partisan divide. The Democratic Mainstays share some views with Republicans, but they are very loyal to their own party. The Outsider Left is disenchanted with the Democrats, but very far from the GOP on substance. On the other side, the Populist Right has some overlap with Democrats on skepticism toward corporations, but its rural voters are among the most hostile to liberals and progressives. The few Republicans who crossed over to vote for Joe Biden in 2020 were probably members of the Ambivalent Right, but most voters in that category nonetheless stuck with Trump through the last election.

Put it all together, and we're left with a picture of an electorate deeply divided and firmly entrenched in its current positions. We knew that already, but thanks to the fascinating Pew study, we understand its contours better than we did before.