Mellman: The three P’s of politics 


Like many Democrats I’m an inveterate CNN watcher, so I regularly encounter Jonathan Lawson pitching Colonial Penn Life Insurance.  

As other regular viewers may recall, he urges us to consider the three P’s of life insurance and then, rather disappointingly, reveals there is really only one “P”— price.  

As we begin to reset for the election year, I’m going up to 30,000 feet to put forward a broad description of American politics using my own three P’s.  

However, I’m offering three different P’s which, taken together, importantly characterize contemporary political dynamics — partisanship, polarization and parity. 

Partisanship — one’s identification with a political party — has long done much to structure people’s attitudes toward politics and issues, but partisan identity has become an even more powerful drug in recent decades.  

A while ago, we conducted a survey experiment for the Bipartisan Policy Center with colleagues at North Star Opinion Research that neatly illustrates the power of partisanship. 

We asked our respondents to choose one of two different plans for improving education. One randomly selected half of our national sample was told A was a Democratic plan and B, a Republican plan, while the other half was told A was the Republican plan and B was the Democrats’ offering. 

In brief, support for an identical education plan shifted by more than 60 points among partisans, depending on which party we claimed backed it.  

Democrats favored whichever plan sported the Democratic label, while Republicans preferred whichever plan we called Republican, irrespective of the plans’ content and substance.  

Policy positions were not driving partisanship, but rather partisanship was determining policy preferences.  

Examples of partisan divergences are legion.  

When we invaded Iraq, Republicans believed Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that he played a direct role in the Sept. 11 attacks. Democrats did not. 

In June 1980, the difference between Democrats and Republicans on the University of Michigan’s Index of Consumer Sentiment was a scant 4 points. Through 2008, the difference averaged about 12 points.  

In the last few months, that difference expanded to nearly 40 points. Partisan identity now plays a critical role in shaping perceptions of the economy, which people experience for themselves daily.  

And of course, with lives at stake during COVID, Democrats and Republicans behaved differently. Democrats were much more likely to social distance, wear masks and even get vaccinations. 

Partisanship has long organized our thinking to some extent, but the power of partisanship has increased dramatically.  

Polarization, my second P, means those differences are not confined to thinking differently about issues — Democrats and Republicans dislike each other much more than in the past.  

The American National Election Study uses a 100-point feeling thermometer to measure attitudes toward parties, with 100 indicating very warm or positive feelings, and 0 denoting cold or negative feelings. 

In 1978, when Jimmy Carter was president, the average evaluation of the party respondents did not identify with was 48 on the 100-point scale, close to neutral. By 2008 it fell to a chilly 35 and by 2020 it slid to a frigid, quite hostile, 19.  

In response to another question assessing antipathy between the parties, in 1960, only about 5 percent said they’d be upset if their child married someone from the other party, a figure that jumped to almost 40 percent by 2020. 

Finally, my third P. Support for these two antithetical parties is at rough parity.  

Gallup measures party identification each month. On average, this year the GOP has held but a 1-point edge.  

In 2020, Democrats won the national House vote by 3 points. In 2022 Republicans won it by slightly less than 3 points.  

In the six presidential contests since 2000, the winning margin has averaged less than three and half points, while our Electoral College put a Democrat in the White House three times and elected a Republican three times. 

Our two parties represent roughly equal size blocks of the American public.  

Mixing the three P’s of politics together makes for a bitter brew.  

Partisanship gives us very different perceptions of the world.  

Polarization creates a Manichean division between those parties and those perceptions. Both parties moralize their differences, treating elections as contests between good and evil.  

Parity portends brutal battles because every election is about control of the levers of government and just a few votes will determine whether good triumphs or evil reins. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, a member of the Association’s Hall of Fame, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.   

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