Fewer See Country Divided Than After 2000, 2004 Elections

by Jeffrey M. Jones

Majority believes Obama can heal political divisions in the country

PRINCETON, NJ -- Although a majority of the public (57%) still views the country as more divided on the major issues than it has been in recent years, Americans are less inclined to believe this than they were after the 2000 and 2004 elections.

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These results are based on a Nov. 7-9 USA Today/Gallup poll, which repeated a question first asked in December 2000 -- shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in George W. Bush's favor in the Florida election recount case -- and asked again in November 2004, after Bush won a bitterly fought contest against John Kerry for a second term as president.

After this year's election, Republicans (73%) are more likely than Democrats (47%) to view the country as more deeply divided, with independents' (52%) views more similar to Democrats'. That is a reversal from 2004, when Democrats (87%) were more likely than Republicans (57%) to perceive the country as more divided. Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to view the country as divided in 2000, but by a smaller, 73% to 62%, margin.

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Though the data are somewhat limited -- based on just three elections -- they suggest that supporters of the party that won the election tend to view the country as being more unified, and supporters of the party that failed to win the White House see the country as being more divided.

Time to Heal?

To the extent that the country is divided, most Americans believe that the Obama administration can heal the political divisions in the country: 54% say it will be able to, and 44% say it will not. While not an overwhelming endorsement, it is a much more optimistic assessment than the public gave Bush after the 2000 (41%) and 2004 (33%) elections.

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Those who believe the country is more divided than it has been in the past are only slightly less optimistic (48%) than the general public about the new administration's ability to heal political divisions.

Americans seem hopeful of an air of cooperation in Washington once Obama takes office. The poll finds 80% believing the new president "will make a sincere effort to work with the Republicans in Congress to find solutions that are acceptable to both parties" when trying to tackle the major issues facing the country. Fewer, but still a solid majority (62%), believe the Republicans in Congress will return the favor. About the same percentage (59%) expect the Democrats in Congress to make an attempt to work with the Republicans in Congress.

Implications

The decline in perceptions of the country's being divided, and expectations for sincere attempts at bipartisanship, may reflect the passing of the Bush era. Bush's approval ratings were the most polarized by party of any president in Gallup polling history, surpassing the highly polarized ratings of Bill Clinton.

It may also reflect the aftermath of a presidential contest between two relatively well-liked candidates -- candidates who have reputations for working with members of the other party on legislative matters. Earlier in the year, Americans also perceived that Obama and McCain were more likely to unify than to divide the country.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,010 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Nov. 7-9, 2008. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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