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Which Party is More Mainstream?

We assess how Pennsylvania voters perceive Republican and Democratic positions on seven important issues. Which party is better aligned with majority opinion?

Berwood A Yost
5 min read

Dear Readers,

This month we take a look at more data collected in our April Franklin & Marshall College Poll. This newsletter focuses on voters' perceptions about which party represents the views of most Americans on seven different issues, including abortion. We find that each party has several issues that give them an advantage, particularly among independent voters, but that partisans in particular have a difficult time believing the other party has any issue advantages.

Thank you for reading,

Berwood Yost

Our May newsletter considered the idea of candidate quality, which emerged as a common topic of discussion after the 2022 midterm elections. Inseparable from the conversations about candidate quality was how a candidate’s policy position on specific issues, notably abortion rights, played into these perceptions. Despite pre-election polls consistently showing that few (9%) voters in Pennsylvania believed that all abortions should be banned, Republican Gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano expressed this unmoderated perspective, which was one reason for his decisive loss.

Mastriano is of course not alone in his belief about abortion policy; his stance continues to be the expressed position of many Republican legislators throughout the state and nation despite the accumulating evidence that their positions run counter to public opinion. Why might that be? And, if this happens for Republicans on abortion rights, do Democrats engage in the same sort of non-mainstream positioning on other issues?

What the Data Say

The questions discussed below asked registered voters in Pennsylvania about which party they perceive as being better aligned with majority opinion on seven different topics. The survey did not test support for specific elements of any policy issue or define those positions in any way, so these questions only assess how voters perceive the parties’ overall issue positions and not what those positions are.

A majority of Pennsylvania voters think the Democratic Party’s position on abortion (53%) is closest to the views held by most Americans. The state’s voters also believe that is true for Democrats’ position on Social Security and Medicare (50%). On the other hand, a majority or near majority believes the Republican Party’s positions on immigration (51%) and public safety (49%) are closest to the views held by most Americans. A sizable number of voters say they don’t know or that neither party best represents the views of most Americans, but this data shows that, when asked, voters have made judgments about which party’s issue positions are more mainstream.

Table 1. Pennsylvania Registered Voters’ Perceptions about which Party’s Issue Positions Reflect Most Americans’ Views

Issue

Democrats

Republicans

Neither

Do not know

Abortion

53%

25%

16%

6%

Gun control

37%

43%

16%

5%

Social Security and Medicare

50%

29%

13%

8%

Immigration

24%

51%

18%

7%

Elections

38%

36%

17%

10%

Public safety and policing

28%

49%

17%

7%

Government spending

26%

39%

28%

7%

Source: April 2023 Franklin & Marshall College Poll. The question asked, "When it comes to their positions on [issue], which party do you think expresses views that are CLOSEST to the views of most Americans?"

The data is also clear that partisanship skews these judgments: those who closely identify with a party are much more likely to believe their party best represents the views of most Americans. More than three in four Republican identifiers feel that their party positions on policing and immigration are aligned with majority opinion, while more than three in four Democratic identifiers feel that way about Social Security and abortion. At the same time, partisan perception of their issue advantage is weakest for Republicans on abortion and is weakest for Democrats on government spending (see Figure 1).

Self-identified independent voters represent the best opportunities for each party to expand their pool of voters, and independents are more likely to see the Democrats’ position on abortion as more mainstream. What makes the abortion issue most perilous for Republicans right now, at least in Pennsylvania, is that even Republican-leaning voters think that Democrats’ views on abortion are more in line with majority opinion. This is the only instance where partisan leaners think the other party better represents majority opinion.

Figure 1. This figure shows each party’s perceived alignment with majority opinion on seven different issues according to party self-identification. Each line represents a different policy issue and the value reported for each issue represents the proportion who reported Democrats minus the proportion who reported Republicans as being aligned with majority opinion. For example, 22% of Republicans believe that the Democratic Party’s views on abortion are better aligned with the majority viewpoint while 54% of Republicans believe their party is better aligned, which produces the estimate of 22% - 54% = -32%, meaning a solid plurality of Republicans believe their party’s views on abortion are best aligned with majority opinion.

Implications

Voters in Pennsylvania understand that each party offers them different policy ideas, and some of these positions are seen as more mainstream than others. Judgments about the Republican Party’s views on abortion appear to have created a problem for them, in that even some voters who mostly identify with the Party see their perspective as outside the mainstream. But Democrats should take note—while their policies on abortion and Social Security may be perceived by independents as more mainstream, Republicans have a pretty clear advantage among independent voters on immigration and public safety, which would produce an advantage if those issues become salient in a future election.

It is clear that voters do not believe that one party is better aligned with majority opinion on every issue, but partisanship prevents many policymakers and advocates from recognizing that fact. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Experiments in social psychology have demonstrated that humans often misjudge or exaggerate the commonality of attitudes and opinions, something known as the false consensus effect.

The false consensus effect has two important consequences. The first is the tendency for people to overestimate how many others share their beliefs. The second is that when we meet someone who believes something we do not, we tend to think there is probably something unique or perhaps aberrant about their personality that leads them to think that way. The original authors put it this way:

we contend that the person who feeds squirrels, votes Republican, or drinks Drambuie for breakfast will see such behaviors or choices…as relatively common and relatively devoid of information about his personal characteristics. By contrast, another person who ignores hungry squirrels, votes Democrat, or abstains at breakfast will see the former actor’s responses as relatively odd and rich with implications about the actor’s personality (Ross, Greene, and House, 1977).

False consensus is driven by the oversimplification of problems and their solutions and by limited information flows, especially information flows within social networks. The data here should remind us that there is value in getting outside of our own partisan networks, and our own heads. We would all be wise to remember that our views are often not shared by most other people, and that those who think differently about an issue probably do not have some deep-seated character flaw.

Party Identity and PartisanshipAbortionGun ControlElection Integrity and Voting ReformPublic Safety and Policing

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