To understand America, don’t separate Republicans and Democrats statistically

Big crowd, small share of all Americans.
Big crowd, small share of all Americans.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Robert
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Donald Trump is wildly popular among Republicans. A recent PRRI poll puts support for the president among members of his party at 80%.

That large share of Republicans, however, makes up a much smaller piece of the total public: 19%. Meanwhile, Democrats who dislike Trump represent 31% of all Americans, according to the same survey.

Americans—including politicians and reporters—are fixated with the Republican-Democrat divide. But looking at public opinion solely in terms of red and blue makes for a distorted picture. Instead of presenting Republicans and Democrats as separate groups—as pollsters usually do—we put them together, in the context of the overall public. Here’s how that looks.

More Democrat than Republican

Americans are not evenly split between the two parties. While the proportion of registered voters who identify as Democrat has hovered around 33% since 1994, Republicans’ share shrunk from 33% that year to 26% in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.

Independents were the only group whose share expanded. They accounted for 37% of registered voters last year, up from 30% in 1994. A bigger proportion of those independents lean Democrat than Republican.

Republicans’ opinions carry less weight

Here’s an example of how partisan views look like as part of the public as a whole, from the PRRI poll. Half of Republicans are unhappy about predictions that minorities will make up the majority of the US population by 2043.

But half of Republicans only makes up 12% of all Americans.

Democrats who see the US’s growing racial and ethnic diversity as a plus account for more than double that: 28%.

Republicans and Democrats sometimes agreee

When viewed by party, public opinion differs sharply between Republicans and Democrats. Take their feelings about two federal agencies that have been featured prominently in the news: The Federal Bureau of Investigation, which started a probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 election that has ensnarled several Trump associates, and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has been carrying out a Trump-mandated crackdown on immigrants.

Republicans are much more likely to support ICE than the FBI; Democrats, the opposite, according to a July survey by Pew.


But if you add up Democrats and Republicans who have favorable views of the FBI, you get more than half of Americans; throw in people who share that opinion, but don’t identify as Democrat or Republican, and you’re at nearly two-thirds.

Americans’s views on ICE are more polarized, but it’s not a strict red-blue divide.

To be sure, looking at every group together makes for more convoluted charts. (That is, most likely, why so few pollsters present data in that way.) But they offer a valuable perspective on the make-up of American public opinion—particularly considering that because of the quirks in the US’s electoral system, elected officials don’t always reflect its complexity.