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Sanders Rise Highlights Splits in Democratic Party

It’s been a tough summer for Hillary Clinton, between emails, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders rise in the polls to questions about a possible candidacy for Vice President Joe Biden. But as analysts parse through survey numbers looking for meaning, the real question might be, what took so long?

Much has been made of splits among Republicans on key issues (immigration, gay marriage), but Democratic voters in some ways are an even more diverse, complicated lot. The demographic, economic and cultural divides between self-described “liberal,” “middle of the road,” and “conservative” Democrats are wide and deep, according to data from Experian Marketing Services.

“Conservative” Democrats are much more likely to be African-American or Hispanic and sit on the lower end of the income scale than Democrats as a whole and on those points they look markedly different from “liberal” Democrats.

Polls show that most of the improvement Mr. Sanders has made has come through liberal Democrats and there are enough Democrats in that group to lead to some poll erosion.

On the chart above, look how evenly Democrats split between the three ideological groups – about three quarters of Democrats self-identify as liberal or middle of the road, another quarter sees themselves as conservative. (A small group, about 3%, refuses to identify under any ideological lean.)

Compare the Democrats numbers to the differences among Republicans, where the income levels are much flatter and the racial divides among conservative and middle-of-the-road Republicans are almost non-existent.

The numbers for “liberal Republicans” look a bit different on race and income, but they make up a very small part of the party – 94 percent of Republicans identify as either conservative or middle of the road.

What’s driving those enormous differences among Democrats? The party has always been a mix of upscale well-educated whites, driven by social issues, and lower-income minorities, driven more by economic concerns. But geography plays a big role as well. Democrats are the more urban of the two political parties and urban places are inherently diverse – full of different races, income levels, ethnicities and religions.

Those are the differences you see in that chart on the Democrats. Consider Washington D.C. and overwhelmingly democratic bastion that gave President Barack Obama 91 percent of its vote in 2012. That number may make it sound united politically, but the data show enormous splits.

The population in Washington’s 20020 zip code in the city’s Southeast quadrant, for instance, is 97 percent African American with a median household income of about $34,000. The city’s 20015 zip code in its Northwest is 76 percent non-Hispanic white with a median household income of $159,000. Those are radically different places regardless of how they vote.

And those differences manifest themselves in a range of ways that show differences in those groups day-to-day lives, according to the Experian data.

For instance, conservative Democrats are 61 percent more likely than Americans as a whole to shop on Dollar General stores. Liberal Democrats are 11 percent less likely to shop there. And liberal Democrats are 116 percent more likely to shop at Whole Foods than Americans as a whole, while conservative Democrats are 30 percent less likely.

Conservative Democrats are more likely to dine at Golden Corral and Burger King than Americans as a whole. Liberal Democrats or more like to visit Chipotle and Starbucks.

The point here is not the brands and stores, it is that conservative and liberal Democrats truly live in different worlds. Considering those differences, some challenge for the Democratic nomination is to be expected. Clinton is not an exception.