3 Charts Reveal What — and Who — Is Making Congress So Polarized

ByBecca Stanek

Partisanship drives voter turnout in elections, leading to a more divided government that makes it harder than ever to find common ground.

A recent study by Pew reports that "the most ideologically oriented Americans are also the most politically active," offering an explanation for Congress' stark ideological divide. Likewise, Pew says that "many in the center 'remain on the edges of the political playing field.'"

This chart shows how much more partisan the electorate is compared to the overall population:

Pew Research Center

Level the field for less gridlock: If you're a centrist and not planning on voting in November, don't be surprised if the next Congress is even more ideologically divided.

That's because partisan-heavy voting produces a Congress that is not representative of the overall population. Pew reports "73% of those who hold consistently conservative attitudes are likely to vote in the midterm, as are 52% of those with mostly conservative views." Consistently liberal voters turn out at a 58% rate and those with "with mostly liberal attitudes" are likely to turn out at just 32%.

For those who don't fully align with either party, only one-quarter is expected to vote. That means that those with the most conservative and liberal views are the most likely to vote, encouraging candidates to court those at the furthest end of the political spectrum.

The results of Pew's study also seem to indicate that voters' opinions are more driven by a candidate's party affiliation rather than stances on specific issues. In both parties, few voters rarely deviate from the party line, indicating, "vote choices are strongly related to voters' underlying political attitudes and values."

Pew Research Center

This phenomenon also becomes apparent in Pew's report that few voters have changed their minds on which candidate they will vote for in the midterm election between polls in June and in September. "Ticket splitting," voting for both Democrats and Republicans on the same ballot, is rare, further highlighting how "ideologically consistent voters are nearly uniformly supportive of their respective political parties."

Support out of spite: Votes are not only being cast by the most partisan among us — they're also being cast out of a disdain for the other side. Partisan voting is largely a result of "hostility toward the opposing party," which Pew reports is "a key marker of polarization and a strong motivator for voting." This trend can be most clearly seen in the Republican Party, with "40% of those with a mostly unfavorable view of Democrats likely to vote ... Out of those with positive or neutral views of the Democratic Party, only 23% are expected to vote." 

Americans are more than frustrated with congressional gridlock. According to a recent poll by Gallup, that frustration may drive low voter turnout in this year's midterms. Americans are dissatisfied, but "with a Democratic president and divided party control of Congress, there is no clear remedy to inspire voters to change things this year."

You get the Congress you don't vote for: Here's a clear reason why voting matters, especially for voters in the center. We're getting the most extreme members of Congress because the most partisan people are driving the polls.

Sitting back and shaking our heads at Congress won't inspire any change. In fact, it could lead to an even more extreme divide. Voters in the center, this is a message to you: Get off the sidelines and into the voting booth.