Rhode Islanders are worried about democracy. What they blame depends on their political party.

New Pell Center poll highlights partisanship among voters

By: - November 13, 2023 5:00 am

A Pell Center survey released Monday found that over half of the survey takers, all registered voters, don’t think the U.S. democracy is healthy. (Getty Images)

The partisanship dividing the nation has come home to roost in Rhode Island, with political party affiliation a central source of disagreement over perception of elections, democracy and news media, according to a new survey.

The online survey published Monday by The Pell Center at Salve Regina University asked 887 registered voters about political polarization, the health of the country’s democracy and elections, and the accuracy of news media, breaking down responses based on political affiliation. The survey, which has a 3.3% margin of error, was conducted by Embold Research from Oct.12-17, with questions in English and Spanish.

“We’re trying to better understand the nuances and complexity of polarization,” said Katie Langford Sonder, the Pell Center’s associate director. “Often, we are inundated with these narratives that are oversimplified. We want to really understand why these two sides are feeling farther and farther apart.”

The survey highlighted some areas of commonality: mainly, that over half of survey takers don’t think the U.S. democracy is healthy, with shared concern over elections and the accuracy or objectivity of news media. But they disagreed on the causes.

Republicans overwhelmingly pointed to partisan media, voter fraud and President Joe Biden as the top threats to democracy. Democrats, in contrast, named former President Donald Trump as the No. 1 threat, followed by voter suppression and Republican officials.

The sharp partisan divide mirrors research of voters’ perceptions nationally, according to Langford Sonder.

That’s no surprise, given the tenor of national politics and the sources from which voters get their information. Just over half of Republicans surveyed said they get most of their news about local and national politics from Fox News, while a similar percentage of Democrats opted for primetime networks like CBS, NBC and Fox, closely followed by national newspapers.

Across party lines, just 4 in 10 survey takers said they search for different points of view when learning about a topic or news event, while a majority acknowledged they never or seldom asked critical questions about the news they consume.

In other words, Rhode Islanders have a false sense of confidence in their media literacy skills, according to Langford Sonder.

“In the worst-case scenario, it leads to this viewpoint that people on the other side of the political aisle watch partisan news, but it’s not ‘my’ problem,” she said.

Case in point: the unfavorable lens through which each side views the other.

More than 9 in 10 Democrats surveyed said Republicans were very or somewhat more close-minded, with almost as many also viewing their partisan counterparts as very or somewhat dishonest and immoral.

Republicans were just as damning in their judgments about Democrats, with similar percentages of Republican survey takers saying Democrats were very or somewhat more close-minded, dishonest and immoral.

Unaffiliated voters, meanwhile, called out both sides almost equally for these three traits.

Often, we are inundated with these narratives that are oversimplified. We want to really understand why these two sides are feeling farther and farther apart.

– Katie Langford Sonder, the Pell Center’s associate director.

While Rhode Island is more left-leaning than the country as a whole, that did not appear to tamper the sharp divide. However, the survey also highlighted the breadth of viewpoints and political preferences among unaffiliated voters, who make up the largest voting bloc in the state at about 46% of registered voters.

For example, independents agreed with registered Democrats in their heightened concerns over Trump and voter suppression. However, they also shared the viewpoint of registered Republicans that partisan media was to blame for democracy’s demise.

Independent voters were also more likely than their Republican or Democratic counterparts to consume local TV news as their primary source of information, with just over half opting for local broadcast stations.

Despite the bleak outlooks on the state of democracy, it’s not the top-of-mind issue for most voters. A majority named inflation and cost-of-living as one of the top three problems facing the country today. By contrast, just over 25% said polarization was a top problem, with even fewer naming the state of democracy.

That squares with national data showing the connection between perception of democracy and the economy overall, Langford Sonder said.

“Nationally, Americans tend to have more positive views of U.S. democracy when the economy is doing well,” she said.

The survey also included questions about Rhode Island’s 1st Congressional District election, findings from which were released in October ahead of the Nov. 7 election. The survey suggested Democrat Gabe Amo had an 11-percentage-point lead over Republican Gerry Leonard Jr, though Amo ultimately won the seat by nearly three times that margin.

That did not diminish the rest of the survey’s accuracy to Langford Sonder. She stressed that the survey was first and foremost a way to take the temperature of voters on polarization, not an election poll. The survey also slightly overrepresented Republicans, who comprised 20% of survey takers compared with 14% of registered voters in the state overall.

The Pell Center plans to conduct a similar survey next year ahead of the 2024 presidential election, as part of its ongoing work to measure partisanship and polarization in Rhode Island. While the goal is ultimately to use education and community events to bridge the divide, Langford Sonder anticipated next year’s survey would show a sharper level of partisanship among respondents due to the proximity to the election.

“During that time of heightened stress and inundation with news media, I think we will see people feeling at least more fatigued, if not more frustrated,” she said.



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Nancy Lavin
Nancy Lavin

Nancy Lavin is senior reporter covering state politics, energy and environmental issues for the Rhode Island Current.