Pew has just released a new study that manages to be, unfortunately, as uninformative as it is fascinating. The basic takeaway point, that partisans are highly partisan, is hardly news. This has been the single consistent finding in the history of rigorous public opinion research. The secondary major point, that partisans seem to have become more intense in their partisanship than “ever” needs to be taken into context since, first, measuring intensity of sentiments is a tricky business whose reliability beyond “none,” “a little,” and “lots” is questionable–and partisan animosity has reached the “lots” stage for a long time already (and depending on how it is defined, it has never been less than “lots” for people who actually consider themselves “partisan”) and, second, because the history of rigorous public opinion research is relatively recent, starting in earnest only in late 1940s and early 1950s, when partisan sentiments started to decline. In absence of the data, it is impossible to tell how the current partisan animosity compares to late 19th century or early 20th century, when, at least based on anecdotal accounts and limited data, partisans were, supposedly, very partisan indeed.
The really interesting aspect of a study into partisans and partisanship, in fact, is usually how those who don’t see themselves as in tune with either party (the so-called independents) perceive politics, current events, parties, and partisans. There is precious little here about them, even though, apparently, they made up nearly half the sample (granted, most of the “independents” are leaners and that opens up several whole cans of worms.) A useful clue about what separates the “leaners” from actual partisans is that the former dislike one party more than the other, without having much love for it. Of course, we know that, at least in terms of vote choice, there is little difference between leaners and partisans, but what about proclivity to turn out? Are there different grades of leaners, that is, how much do they hate the side that they hate less? What do they hate about the party they hate more, anyways? What might cause them to switch their vote choice, if they can be brought out to actually cast a ballot? Or, in other words, how much appeal did Sanders have towards so-called MWV’s of different stripes, many of whom, it seems, were classic “leaners”, and ditto for Donald Trump?