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Parties Becoming More Polarized on Key Issues : Study Finds Wider Gap in Congress Votes

January 14, 1986|KAREN TUMULTY | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — At a time when some political analysts say the two major political parties are moving toward the center, the voting records of Democratic and Republican congressmen instead are growing more polarized, a survey to be released today indicates.

Annual measures compiled by Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal political organization, show that the difference between average GOP and average Democratic voting records on issues selected by the organization was 52 percentage points last year, compared to 39 percentage points in 1976.

The figures indicate that the overall Democratic voting record is becoming more liberal, while Republicans in general are lining up more closely behind conservative positions.

ADA Director Ann Lewis said that the growing gap is another sign of what is being called "dealignment"--the idea that voters are less bound by a tradition of party loyalty.

'Political Consumers'

Lewis contended that, although voters once were "political partisans"--voting for candidates of a particular party even when they disagreed with them on issues--they increasingly are becoming "political consumers" and are making their decisions on the basis of such considerations as issues, candidates and presentation.

Although other analysts agreed with the trend indicated by the ADA survey, they disputed Lewis' assessment of the reasons behind it.

"The trend is notable, (but) it flies in the face of the dealignment argument," said Thomas E. Mann, executive director of the American Political Science Assn. "It's just the opposite . . . more of a sorting out and a closer association of ideology and party.

"It rather reinforces the notion that parties are distinctive, that the great diverse political parties of the past . . . have grown more homogeneous," he said.

Regional Trends

Mann and other analysts pointed to regional trends. The conservative Democratic bloc that once dominated politics in the South, for example, has begun to be replaced by conservative Republicans. Democrats elected to represent the region are increasingly liberal, reflecting the growing political clout of blacks, Mann added.

As a result, he said, "the differences within the Democratic Party are not as stark as they were 20 or 30 years ago."

An opposite shift has occurred in the Republican Party, Mann said. While Republicans have gained congressional seats in the conservative South and West, the number of Republican congressmen from New England--traditionally the most liberal within the party--fell from 14 in 1960 to eight in 1982, according to the latest statistics compiled by the American Enterprise Institute.

The ADA survey results are the first of a number released annually by groups that track congressional voting records. Some, such as the AFL-CIO and the American Civil Liberties Union, rate congressional votes on issues that are of concern to their members. Others, such as the ADA and the American Conservative Union, choose a broader range of votes that reflect overall ideology.

Californians Rated

In the ADA's 1985 ratings, California Sen. Alan Cranston, a Democrat, received a 100% rating for voting in favor of the liberal position on all 20 of the key votes selected by the organization. Republican Sen. Pete Wilson received a 10% rating.

Also receiving 100% liberal ratings were three Democratic House members from California: Reps. Howard L. Berman of Panorama City, Don Edwards of San Jose and Mel Levine of Santa Monica. California Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach) was the only member of the delegation who voted with the ADA position on none of the issues selected.

The overall congressional voting record in 1985 was slightly more conservative--declining on the ADA scale to 44% from 48% in 1984. The rating falls within the 40%-70% range considered "moderate" by the organization. Republicans averaged a conservative 15%, while Democrats averaged a moderate 67%.

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