WASHINGTON — The American political landscape has tilted decidedly toward Republicans since President Bush was first elected in 2000, but that may not result in the enduring political realignment he has sought, according to a major new study of public attitudes.
The national survey released Tuesday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Republicans had gained, in part, by winning increased support from the middle of the political spectrum -- a part of the electorate less inclined toward the GOP in 1999, the last time the center conducted such a broad study.
Andrew Kohut, the nonpartisan research center's director, said the new finding was a testament to Bush's personal popularity among many voters -- even as his job approval ratings had sunk below 50% -- and to the strength of his leadership on national security issues. That, however, raises questions about whether Republican gains will outlast Bush's presidency -- or fade if the public's focus shifts from foreign to domestic policy.
"The landscape coming out of the 2004 election favored Republicans, but there's no guarantee that Republicans have solidified their hold on things," Kohut said. "It isn't structural change."
What is more, he said, the survey found Republican-inclined voters were increasingly divided over domestic issues, such as the environment, as well as fundamental questions about the size and reach of government.
The report found divisions among Democratic-inclined voters on other issues such as the role of religion in politics, painting a more complex portrait of the two parties than the conventional view that the country is polarized between the "red" states that voted for Bush in 2000 and in 2004 and the "blue" states that did not.
"There are many more shades to the American political landscape than just the red and blue dividing the electoral college maps," the report said.
Assessing possible candidates for president in 2008, the survey found that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) had staged a comeback in public opinion. Approval ratings for Clinton -- who was a controversial first lady in the 1990s and now is considered a leading presidential contender -- jumped to 57% in December 2004, up from 47% in December 2002.
The center also sought opinions about seven leading Republicans and found that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was viewed favorably by 57% of those surveyed -- a popularity rating exceeded only by former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (60%) and Sen. John McCain of Arizona (59%).
Asked whether they would like to have Bush run for a third term if that was not prohibited by the Constitution, 27% said yes. By contrast, 43% said they would like Bill Clinton to serve a third term in the White House.
The survey is the fourth in a series the Pew center has conducted since 1987 to analyze the shape of the electorate in terms more subtle than pollsters' traditional focus on party identification. The Pew survey, instead, divides their sample electorate into groups based on their values and beliefs about government, social issues and foreign policy.
The new survey, the first since Bush was elected to the White House, was based on 2,000 interviews in December. It has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points. The survey also reflected the results of 1,090 follow-up interviews in March, with a margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
Based on both sets of interviews, the report identifies eight distinct political types: three kinds of conservatives that favor the GOP, three mostly liberal groups that favor Democrats, and two groups in the middle.
In surveys in 1994 and 1999, the centrist groups did not align clearly with either party. But now, although the two middle groups are mostly independents, they lean decidedly to the GOP.
One faction of swing voters includes well-educated, politically engaged moderates; although most are independent, they voted for Bush by a 4-to-1 margin last fall. The other swing group is made up of less-educated and lower-income people who are disaffected with politics. Many of them did not vote in 2004, but among those who did, more than twice as many voted for Bush as for Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The poll found that these swing voters, although diverse, had in common "a highly favorable opinion of President Bush personally and support for an aggressive military stance against potential enemies."
That support from the political center was crucial to the GOP because the study found that the three Republican-leaning groups it identified accounted for 29% of the public, while the three Democratic groups, taken together, constituted 41%.