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Poll finds political and geographic divides among Americans, but unity in core values

WAMC screenshot of Siena College Research Institute poll

A poll out Monday shows Americans remain divided over politics, the results of the 2020 election and the media yet share core values of equality, liberty and progress. The survey from the Siena College Research Institute polled more than 6,000 Americans across the country.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with Poll Director Dr. Don Levy about the results of one of the institute’s largest surveys:

Levy: Well, the way we did it, we asked respondents and we spoke to over 6,000 people across the entire country. And we framed it in terms of ‘we're going to read you a series of statements. And for each one, I want you to consider that statement and not just say, whether you believe it or not, but are these words that you live by on a daily basis.’ So we tried to set the bar pretty high. But we had statements that encompass ideas like ‘all people are created equally, regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, etc.’ We also had a statement like ‘no one is above the law.’ And we had a statement about affirmative action, we had a statement about ‘no person is complete, unless they give of themselves in service to others.’ We paraphrase the golden rule, treat others as you would have them treat you. And we tried to determine whether, you know these core beliefs of being an American, of living here in our country with one another. Not only resonated, not only were words that people say, yeah I've heard that. But are these words that guide you on a daily. Was there variation? Absolutely, there was some variation. But when we consider all 34 statements simultaneously, we found that overall it was the similarities, not the differences that overwhelmed us. People scored very high. When you considered each of the variables, you could score from zero, meaning I neither believe it, nor do I live that way at all up to a 10, saying, I absolutely believe that statement and I am personally guided by it on a daily basis. And we found that overall, people scored at about eight out of 10. Now when you consider the statements about equality, folks who voted for Biden, folks who tended to be more left of center on the issues of the day, tended to score a little bit higher on the statements pursuant to equality. Now, in terms of liberty, the people that were Trump voters, and/or they tended to be right of center on issues like immigration, guns, abortion, they tended to score a little bit higher on liberty, but the difference was of degree, not really of substance. And the takeaway for us, is that despite the partisan divide that we live within, and we saw that in our sample, we saw a tremendous disagreement and issues like assault weapons, immigration, abortion, we saw tremendous disagreement of who you voted for in the last election. But still, regardless of that disagreement, there was overwhelming similarity on these underlying core value statements.

WAMC screenshot of Siena College Research Institute poll

Levulis: And the poll also found that regardless of those differences that you just detailed, those surveyed, the majority said that they are proud to be American, if I'm understanding the poll correctly. In your mind, that pride reside in the respondent’s determination of those values and the aspirations that they have for themselves and the country?

Levy: I think so. I think that what people told us and many people told us, they took the time to tell us their story. And whether it was this generation or two generations, many of them traced it to their immigration story and how this country afforded them opportunity to build a life beyond that, which they or their moms and dads or their grandparents could have built in their country of origin. They again and again said, ‘our country has its warts, it has its faults, but it's so much better than anyplace else. I have a life here that I couldn't have someplace else.’ So that's where the pride was, and this sense that American to American, people feel these values more so. They did offer criticisms, though. They said things to us like it is things like our politicians that divide us. Americans are not as divided they said, as our politicians. In fact, they even accused our politicians in some ways of dividing us so as to enhance their power. They also cited enduring problems that we have. Many people, white, Black, Hispanic said that systemic racism is a problem. And we have to do better. In fact, we had any number of respondents simply use those words, ‘I'm proud to be an American, it’s the land of opportunity, but we can do better.’ And they talked about how they thought, and they hope that the values that we asked them about could be lived more fully by everyone. Treat each other with mutual respect, listen to each other. They offered concerns about social media. They offered concerns about the media in general. In fact, we had some respondents that said, a problem is that too many Americans, their word was, are ignorant. They don't curate the information that they receive. And they accept information from sources that are not reliable. And that contributes to the divides among us. And unfortunately, we did have respondents who said to us, if something isn't done to bring us together, there's no guarantee that the America that they're so proud of is going to continue forever. Some of them are afraid that this level of political partisanship could fundamentally divide us, and we would no longer be the America that they value so much.

Levulis: I want to touch on the information piece that you discussed there. A quarter of respondents said that the mainstream media is fake news. Is that reflective of an information divide, which one would assume impacts the other issues we've been talking about? If you don't agree on the data, the information, it's unlikely you're to see eye to eye on the issues, right?

Levy: Absolutely. In fact, there are some areas of the country where more than 50% of the people that we spoke to agree with the statement that much of the mainstream media is fake news. I think that the media and news has become politicized, and now has been caught up in this level of partisanship. It's no secret that former President Trump would often you know, look at reporters, and say you’re fake news. And when there was a story that he disagreed with, he'd say that's fake. And, you know, so we saw a much higher level of agreement with much of the mainstream media being fake news amongst those respondents who told us that they had voted for former President Trump than those who voted for Joe Biden for president. But that's part of the problem that when we ask people to reflect on what divides us and what holds us together, that many Americans, whether they're Republicans, Democrats, or independents, that's what they said. They said we have to have facts that we agree on. And so it appears though, this tendency on the part of a sizable plurality of Americans to just say that the mainstream media is fake, is one of the dangers that is perceived by a larger majority of Americans.

Levulis: This data point also stood out to me, nearly 1/3 of the respondents said that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump, while 56% think it was not. I think more surprising to me was that 56% number. Just 56% thought that the election was not stolen.

Levy: Yeah I mean, we live in a country where each time we have an election, we look forward to the peaceful transition of power. And you could certainly say only 56% think that the election was by implication fair. Nearly a third and again, I'll point out that there were some places in the country where that number was significantly higher than 1/3. Again, it appears that you know, and we use those words, knowing to a certain extent that they've become politicized and you know, we saw the quote, unquote, stop the steal efforts. We saw January 6 at the Capitol. And we know that there is a meaningful percentage of the country who think that the election was stolen, there was fraud, there were elements that were unfair. You know, and those words continued to be echoed by any number of elected officials today, in addition to former President Trump. So there continues to be nationally in our polling 31%, we'll call it about a third, who concur with that position. Interestingly, some might say that there's a chance that we're understating that number. Now, I'll point out that in some regions of the country, for example, in the Deep South, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, that's one of the nine census regions that we pulled, it goes to a breakeven point. As many people say the election was stolen as those who say it was not. In our area, that's not the case. The majority say it was not stolen. So there are areas in the country where perhaps it is more socially acceptable to say that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump. So the number goes up. So some would argue that perhaps the number of New Yorkers who hold that view might even be slightly higher than the approximate quarter in the state of New York, who believed that the election was stolen.

Levulis: The poll also asked about four major issues that have dominated American politics for many years. You mentioned them: voting rights, a path to citizenship, assault weapons and abortion. How did the responses play out in those areas?

Levy: We took a look at those issues. We did it for two reasons, three actually. We wanted to see if there were differences by region on those issues. So for example, if you take a federal ban on assault weapons overall, 61% of Americans support that, 39% of Americans oppose it. But if you look at our area, the region that we deemed to be called the Middle Atlantic, it was three to one. 75% support that ban, only a quarter oppose it. But again, if you look at the South Central, the reason I've been describing, the West, North Central, the upper Midwest, their voters that we spoke to are really evenly divided 51, 52% supported, 48% oppose, so regional differentiation. On the path to citizenship, there we saw close to two to one, 63 to 37 support that. Again, support significantly higher here in the Greater New York area than it is in the South. On abortion, we saw continued small difference really, nationally 43% think abortion should be legal in most cases. 36% think it should be illegal. So only a seven point plurality, nationally. Huge differences by region. You know, a plus 18 here in the Mid Atlantic. New England we see a plus 36. In the New England area, a majority 58% think abortion should be legal 22% illegal. But then again, you flip around to the Mountain states, voters are evenly divided 39 legal, 39 illegal and in some areas of the South, the east South-Central, the upper Midwest, more voters think that abortion should be illegal than legal. The fight that we're having right now, the Texas legislation, the upcoming Supreme Court hearings, we are a divided nation on abortion. When you consider the entire nation though, certainly more voters think that abortion should continue to be legal, that Roe v. Wade should be maintained that those who think it is illegal, but we see consistent disagreements there. And the last issue, the one that really kind of surprises almost everyone who looks at this data. We ask people, ‘do you support or oppose passing federal legislation that would both protect voting rights and make it easier to vote?’ Now hold onto your seat, because we found that 84% of Americans support that. Only 16% oppose it. And there's not a region in the country where opposition exceeds 21%. So it's a little bit of a head scratcher. Virtually everyone, you know, at the rate of 80 or 80-plus supports passing federal legislation that would both protect voting rights and make it easier to vote. But you just saw this week that that alleged piece of legislation based on those ideas, could not even make it to the Senate floor for discussion despite the fact that it is supported by 80% of Americans. We also posed voting as a value statement. And we asked people, ‘to what degree are these words that you live by protecting every American's right to vote is important.’ And that's scored off the charts. It was one of the two or three highest ranked statements in terms of values that Americans live by. So it confuses us a little bit that Americans say that protecting voting rights is important. Yet, we can't seem through our political endeavors to either pass federal legislation that protects voting rights or on the state level agree as to how to frame legislation to protect voting rights. Now, what we did with those statements, those four: path to citizenship, assault weapons, voting rights, abortion, as well as adding in the two questions we talked about before, about fake news and whether the election was stolen, we considered all six of those questions simultaneously. So in other words, we took all 6,077 respondents, and we simultaneously considered how each of those 6,000 people answered each of those six questions. And we put them through a process known as cluster analysis into one of three groups. One group that extensively tended to take the lead left the center position, one group that tended to take the right of center position, and one group that tended to take the centrist position between the two extremes. And we found that we are indeed a country that's approximately a third, a third, a third. A third of respondents tended to take the left of center position, a third tended to take the right of center position with the exception of what we just talked about a voting rights where they were not opposed to voting rights, and 1/3 who tended to take the centrist position, but saying that the centrist position lean to the left. And I think that's a fair description, according to our study, of the political orientation of people across the country. Yes, we are politically divided. Yes, about a third of us are left of center, a third of us are right of center, a third of us are in the center. But on some issues, like voting rights, we do tend to all agree.

WAMC screenshot of Siena College Research Institute poll

Levulis: And I wonder if with voting rights, it's just an easier term, it's an easier thought to square with those shared values of equality, liberty and progress when compared to some of the other ones; assault weapons, abortion, etc. That's just a thought.

Levy: Well, it could very well be. I mean, it's a fundamental aspect of being an American, the right to vote. You know, and it's tied in. I think you're absolutely right, you know, when we're engaging people about their values, and we're sort of enlivening in them this sense of what does it mean to be an American. And, you know, one person, one vote, we've all heard, and we're familiar with how Americans through the centuries, have fought for that principle, have died for that principle. You know, that's what separates us from authoritarian regimes in which people don't have that opportunity to vote. We're familiar with the imagery of nations that have gained that right to vote and how excited they are, sometimes with American support and assistance. So it's central to being an American. You know, what appears to be going on right now is the battle in some people's minds is not over the vote, the battle seems to be over who's actually an American. So there is some sense in terms of some of the legislation that appears to be being passed in some states around the country, making sure that there isn't fraudulent activity on the part of some who are not as American as others.

Levulis: So finally, based on the numbers and what we're seeing here in terms of you know shared values, but also some distrust of the media, distrust of politicians. And then divisions. We talked about a third, a third, a third. Do you see a path towards less division?

Levy: Well, you know I think when I listened to the Americans that we spoke to, and we asked them specifically, we asked them how hopeful they are. And we spoke to people from every walk of life, every state across the country, there, I have hope. Because average Americans, appreciate our country, appreciate our values. And do believe that in order to move America forward, we have to make some concessions. We have to collaborate, we have to give a little bit more to our country. One of the things that they talked about is they're concerned about this move away from being citizens towards being consumers. And there's a certain selfishness that some of our respondents worry is taking away from our country. So you know, with that being said, what they're what they're calling for and what the data is calling for is there needs to be some, both structural and cultural changes. Structurally, the data points to changes like term limits, campaign finance reform, putting systems in place to limit gerrymandering, to truly make Congress be more representative of average Americans and fight against this tendency to these gerrymandered safe districts where congressmen on both the left and the right, respond to the most extreme elements of their party rather than to these average Americans who tend to veer towards the center. You know, those are some of the structural changes. Culturally, one of the things that really came out of the data and from our interviews is this call for national service. That perhaps, you know, while we don't have a draft, that it might be a good idea if we reinstituted or instituted some form of mandatory national service for people, where people got a chance to give of themselves to their country as a whole. And in the process, met some more people who are a little different than they are to the bind us together as a nation. You know, some of our respondents talked about how various crises that the country has faced over the centuries, it was those crises that brought us together. And they pointed out that unfortunately, even this crisis that we're in the midst of today, the pandemic, has to some surprisingly, done more to divide us than bring us together. So, you know, is it realistic to believe that our elected leaders are going to vote in term limits or less than gerrymandering? It doesn't seem highly likely at this point. But I think the study says that that's what needs to happen. It may not happen this year. But I think that that's what average Americans are calling for.

Jim is WAMC’s Assistant News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org