Modern U.S. Politics: The Great American Divide

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

The 2002 congressional elections will take place in a highly competitive political environment, perhaps as divided as any in American political history. Currently, Democrats enjoy a one-seat advantage in the Senate and Republicans have a slim majority in the House of Representatives, while Republican George W. Bush resides in the White House following one of the closest presidential elections in American history. The 2002 elections could throw control of Congress to the Democrats and force Bush to work with a legislature that is inclined to oppose his ideas. This would fit the prevailing pattern of federal government control from the last half century; the same political party has controlled both the presidency and Congress in only 14 out of the last 50 years.

An April 5-7 Gallup poll* shows the public lacks consensus as to whether divided government is good for the country. According to the poll, 42% of Americans say it is better for the country to have a president from one political party and Congress controlled by the other, while 43% say it is better to have both branches of government controlled by the same party. Historically, the public has been split in its opinions on this matter, though throughout much of the early 1990s the plurality of Americans favored single-party control.

A closer look at the data reveals that opinions on the desirability of divided government are strongly related to Americans' political attitudes as well as the current political context. Traditionally, conservatives have shown a preference for having one party control both branches of government. The latest poll shows those with conservative ideologies favor same-party government by a 52% to 34% margin, while liberals take the opposite view and favor divided government by a 32% to 56% margin.

However, the political context also seems to play a significant part in determining Americans' feelings about divided government. In 1997, at a time when Democrat Bill Clinton was president and Republicans had control of both houses of Congress, a plurality of both liberals and conservatives favored same-party control. Three years earlier in January 1994, when Clinton was completing his first year as president and Democrats still had control of both houses of Congress, liberals showed a stronger preference for single-party control (52% compared to 27% who favored two-party control) than did conservatives (48% to 39%). Thus, the current preference of liberals for divided government is probably driven largely by the fact that a conservative Republican occupies the White House.

When looking at political partisanship, both Republicans and Democrats show a preference for single-party control, while independents prefer divided government. As is the case for ideology, these attitudes are influenced by the political context, with more Republicans in favor of single-party control when there is a Republican president and more Democrats in favor of single-party control when a Democrat occupies the White House.

Because opinions shift depending on the political context, the outcome of the 2002 elections is likely to have an impact on Americans' future stances toward divided government.

*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,009 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 5-7, 2002. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3%. 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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