North America Revisiting the ‘Five Tribes’ of American Voters

Revisiting the ‘Five Tribes’ of American Voters


It might sound improbable, but 13 months after President Trump left the White House, Americans have become even more politically polarized, according to a new RealClear Opinion Research survey, with fissures appearing among Democratic voters that mirror the profound discord roiling the Republican Party.

Despite two years of economic upheaval culminating in the worst inflation in 40 years, our divisions are not primarily economic. Instead, they are driven by a host of social and cultural flashpoints ranging from perceptions of race, immigration policy, and transgender issues to voters’ feelings about the U.S. flag – and about America itself.

Ironically, one question in the new survey did evoke a response that spanned much of the ideological spectrum – a latent desire for a third political party. A certain logic underlies that yearning: On a host of policy issues, Republicans have become more conservative, while Democrats have drifted inexorably leftward – and in a country where the prevalent impulses were historically centrist. Moreover, a new strain of populism has gained strength among voters in both parties, a phenomenon epitomized by the simultaneous appeal of Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In today’s Congress, Sanders is one of only two U.S. senators who officially identifies as an “independent” (none are in the House), meaning that the 40% of Americans who decline to describe themselves as either an “R” or a “D” are virtually unrepresented in Washington. At a time when Americans can choose 15 major auto manufacturers when shopping for a family car, our culturally divided, geographically dispersed, and multi-ethnic electorate of 168 million registered voters is shoe-horned into only two political parties.

This is one reason pollsters and social scientists, in a search for common ground, keep looking for more detailed ways to define the electorate. In 2017, center-right election analyst David Winston used information from the Voter Survey to group voters into five clusters while concluding that policy issues mattered more than demographics in the election that produced the Trump presidency. The same year, using its own polling data, the Pew Research Center identified nine voting groups while probing the widening gap on “values” in American elections. (Click on the chart below to enlarge it.)

Another organization, “More in Common,” dissected the electorate into seven segments which range from Progressive Activists on the left to Devoted Conservatives on the right. In their October 2018 report, the authors assert that the five groups in the ideological middle (Traditional Liberals, Passive Liberals, Politically Disengaged, Moderates, and Traditional Conservatives) make up an “exhausted majority” that disdains name-calling and polarization, even though they haven’t figured out how to stop it.

The same month, RealClearPolitics unveiled its first original public opinion survey, beginning with a project that also sought to shed light on the animating attitudes of American voters. Under the supervision of John Della Volpe, director of polling for RealClear Opinion Research, this survey employed a new set of polling questions and other research methods – such as documenting voters’ impressions of images like a U.S. flag on the side of a barn – to produce a report challenging the idea that America is a 50-50 nation neatly divided between Republican “red” and Democratic “blue” voters. In the end, Della Volpe and his team identified “Five Tribes” that better explain the visceral and varied perspectives of U.S. voters.

Topline findings: The full polling breakdown

Since 2018, the attitudes and alliances of these tribes have shifted and consolidated. Along the way they have become even more partisan, and the cultural divergences even more stark.

“When we first examined the Five Tribes of American voters, we were struck that even when we got beyond current events and the 24-hour political news cycles, Americans were deeply divided about the country we all share,” notes Jonathan Chavez, chief analytics officer for RealClear Opinion Research.

“In the ensuing 3½ years, we’ve only seen those divisions deepen, as disruptions to the daily lives of many have caused many to re-examine some of their most closely held values,” Chavez added. “What I’m most struck by from this survey is that divisions are not just partisan: Within both parties, we see fundamental disagreements about America, its history, and its future.”

As the tectonic plates shifted beneath the ground of Americans during COVID lockdowns, a summer of racial discontent, a divisive presidential election, and the searing attack on the U.S. Capitol, the makeup of the “Five Tribes” has shifted along with it.

The original tribes were identified as Make America Great Again (12%); Mainline GOP (14%); The Detached (24%); Independent Blues (24%); and The Resistance (26%). These groupings still exist in some degree, although there have been subtle changes, Della Volpe noted this week. And as their tribes’ priorities shifted, the previous labels don’t apply to all of them as neatly as before. For starters, the Independent Blues developed even more affinity to Democrats and we have changed their tribal names. At the same time, the Mainline GOP tribe – with its name unchanged – nearly doubled in size. The new labels and their percentages this time around are: MAGA (14%); Mainline GOP (27%); Institutionalist Democrats (20%); Woke Democrats (19%); and Multicultural Moderates – or Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists (20%). Here are some defining characteristics of each group.

MAGA: Split almost evenly between men and women, this is the whitest tribe, the one least supportive of even legal immigration, and the only one to reject the premise that “racial diversity makes us stronger.” And they reject it by more than 2 to 1 (37% disagree while only 16% agree). Part of this may be a gut reaction against political correctness, which they abhor, but that’s hardly all it is. Those belonging to the MAGA tribe, 93% of whom voted for Trump in 2020, are also the most pessimistic. Eight in 10 say they have more fear than hope about America’s future. “Morning Again in America” devotees of Ronald Reagan they are not.

Mainline GOP: This is now the largest tribe, and the one that grew the most since 2018. They are 81% white, 57% male, and older than the electorate as a whole. Although 89% of them voted for Trump in 2020, their views on racial inclusion and immigration diverge sharply from the MAGA crowd. Four in 10 Mainliners view legal immigration positively, while only 12% don’t. In addition, only 5% disagree with the statement “racial diversity makes us stronger.” At the same time, this is a tribe with a dim view of political correctness and cancel culture. Fully 88% believe that people “have become overly sensitive.”

One of the issues illustrating the divide between the MAGA and Mainline sects within the GOP is vaccine mandates and masking. When researchers showed a photo of a young child wearing a mask outside in their school environment, Mainline GOP were split nearly evenly on whether this illustrates what is right (30%) or wrong (26%) about America in their eyes (+4 right about America). MAGA Republicans, on the other hand, were more likely to believe this image represented something that was wrong about the country (+8 wrong). This difference of opinion between these two tribes on the vaccine was also illustrated when respondents were shown an image of an older man receiving a vaccine from a clinic. By a 16-point margin (36%-20%) Mainline GOPers thought that was what’s right about the country – a margin of more than three times (32%-27%) the number of MAGA members who felt the same.

Institutionalist Democrats: This tribe has a new designation, but they are not all new to politics. Some members were previously in the “Independent Blue” segment; others migrated from The Resistance or even the dissipated Detached tribe. Institutionalist Democrats are the most female of the five tribes, and 72% white. They voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden in 2020 (82%), but are split nearly evenly on Biden’s performance in the Oval Office. Generally, they aren’t happy campers, or terribly optimistic people. Only 7% of them express faith in the next generation of American leaders. Likewise, only one-fourth of them think the Democratic Party cares about people like them (and almost none of them believe the GOP cares). Fully two-thirds wish there was another political party.

Woke Democrats: With Trump safely out of the Oval Office (at least for now), this cohort formerly named The Resistance has decreased in size the most of any tribe. It is more female than male, but not by a huge margin (54% to 46%) and 63% white. It is the youngest tribe (56% are Millennials or Gen Z). Nearly 8 in 10 Woke Democrats rate Biden’s job performance as excellent (30%) or good (49%), and most say he has met (48%) or exceeded (17%) their expectations. Only 10% wish there was another political party.

It would seem that the Woke Tribe not only still despise Donald Trump, they’ve stayed in love with Joe Biden. What they don’t love, necessarily, is the good ol’ USA. They are the only cohort that doesn’t think “cancel culture” is making the country worse, and they do not want schools to teach “traditional American history and values.” They think American-style capitalism is “broken” and 71% claim “there are better countries than the United States” – a sentiment that puts them at odds with every other tribe.

Similar to divisions on the right regarding masking, we find similar cleavages among factions within the Democratic party. When Institutionalist Democrats see the Blue Lives Matter flag flying alongside the American flag most are neutral (53%), and about as many say this represents what is right (23%) about America, as wrong (25%). On the other hand, when the same image is shown to the Woke tribe, there’s a strong rejection of the image. Only 7% approve of this image, 58% disapprove, with 35% remaining on the fence.

Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists. This tribe broke for Biden in 2020 by a 63% to 34% margin, but many nonetheless display some of the sensibilities of swing voters. They are 52% female and 48% male, which comes close to replicating the overall electorate, and they are young, too, although not quite as young as the Wokesters: Half of them are either Millennials or Gen Z.

This is the most racially diverse tribe (only 47% are white) and are the most likely to agree with the statement: “I often feel under attack because of the color of my skin.” (The second-highest on this question, instructively, are members of the MAGA tribe.)

Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists are not easy to pigeon-hole. They trail only Woke Democrats in believing that “structural racism” makes it difficult for Hispanics and African Americans to get ahead in life. Yet they are less enamored of the benefits of immigration than Mainline Republicans. When asked whether cancel culture is a danger, Multiculturalists occupy the middle ground between the two Democratic and two Republican tribes. They are optimists, too. This tribe recorded the highest score expressing faith “in the next generation of leaders to move the country forward.”

“The Democratic-Leaning Multiculturalists are caught in the middle of a culture war that doesn’t address their concerns,” says Jonathan Chavez. “They simultaneously believe that structural racism must be addressed, and that we must teach traditional American values. While they were a decisive part of Biden’s 2020 victory, they are a segment of voters that much of Washington’s current politics don’t seem to address.”

It’s an oversight that could prove decisive in 2024.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.


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