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What's Behind The Misconceptions Republicans And Democrats Have About Each Other


As the divide deepens between Republicans and Democrats in today's heated political climate, the two parties appear to know less and less about each other. Perry Bacon Jr. is a political writer for FiveThirtyEight. He's dug into recent research about the partisan divide. His story is called "Democrats Are Wrong About Republicans. Republicans Are Wrong About Democrats." Perry Bacon Jr., welcome to the studio.

PERRY BACON JR.: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: You looked primarily at a study published in The Journal of Politics. And these two researchers tried to suss out the misperceptions that voters have about people in the other party. How did this research work?

BACON JR.: So what they did was they did a poll where they asked people about kind of stereotypical groups in each party. For example, how many blacks are in the Democratic Party, and how many evangelicals are in the Republican Party? About 25 percent of Democrats are black. Republicans think about 46 percent of Democrats are black. About 6 percent of Democrats are gay, lesbian or bisexual. Republicans thought about 38 percent of them are. On the Republican side, about 2 percent of Republicans make more than $250,000 a year. Democrats thought 44 percent of Republicans made that much. About 36 percent of Republicans are Southerners. Democrats thought that number was 44 percent.

CORNISH: Now, why do you think that is?

BACON JR.: I think there are two explanations. One is that I think people are just not great at math. For example, it is true that most blacks vote Democratic, but it's not true that therefore most Democrats are black. The second factor here I would say is media coverage. And what I mean by that is the stereotypes of the parties in the media are really deep. The media every four years, maybe every two years says Democrat X can only win if blacks vote for them in huge numbers, and Republican X can only win if evangelicals vote for them in huge numbers. So I'm not surprised that people have internalized deeply those stereotypes and maybe over-internalized them.

CORNISH: Another way to think of this is the idea that just like advertising or commercial branding, now we kind of see party identity as, like, part of our own identity, which makes it really high stakes if you're arguing about it (laughter).

BACON JR.: Precisely. In the old days, it used to be, you know, the parties were about, like, tax policy. You know, Republicans want lower taxes. Democrats want higher taxes. But now you have the parties that are not just divided on policy but also on identity. Like, when party has become not just about policy but also about who you are, that makes it much harder to resolve conflicts. It's why when people say they want to go to Thanksgiving dinner but they don't want to see their friends who support the other party, that's why - because they're now not just arguing over politics; they're arguing over race and religion and geography and all these, like, deeply personal things.

CORNISH: Did any of these researchers tell you how this might be solved?

BACON JR.: They did not tell me. There's not a lot of optimism about solving this problem in part because - although, one of my colleagues - I do some work with the New America Foundation, and his name is Lee Drutman. One of his ideas is if we have more parties - a Bernie Sanders party, a Hillary Clinton party, a Jon Huntsman party and a Donald Trump party - and those are different views in that party.

So there are a lot of Republicans, for example, who are uncomfortable with the way Trump talks about racial issues. But their view is, if I vote for Democrats, I lose on taxes, and I lose on other things that I care about. But if you had more parties and it was easier for, like, a third or fourth party to win, you might not have the polarization where every person who's, like, deeply religious may feel like they have to be in the Republican Party even if on taxes they agree with the Democrats.

CORNISH: That's Perry Bacon Jr. He's a political writer for FiveThirtyEight. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

BACON JR.: Thank you for having me, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.