While the political bases on the far right and far left seem to be hardening, there is a growing group of voters who find themselves alienated from both major political parties — and even the political process itself.
Signs of polarization are everywhere. A recent Pew Research survey showed there is a growing gap between dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans on a wide array of issues. There is evidence people are voting with their feet, preferring to live in either a blue or red state, depending on their own political viewpoint.
One contributing factor to partisanship — a byproduct of polarization — is how congressional and legislative districts are drawn. Increasingly, district boundaries have been contoured to make congressional and legislative seats politically "safe" for Democrats or Republicans.
An excellent example of the impact of partisan redistricting is the U.S. House, where many GOP members represent safe districts, often with relatively few Hispanic voters. They don't worry about Republicans winning the White House; they fear being challenged by a more conservative opponent in the next primary, as happened to several Oregon legislators in the May primary.
Which brings us to the next wave of response — measures that affect how primary elections are conducted.
Oregonians will vote on a measure this fall replacing the state's Democratic and Republican primaries with what is known as a top-two primary election. There are two big differences. First, all voters, regardless of whether they affiliate with a major party or not, can vote. Second, the top-two finishers can be from the same party.
Proponents of the top-two primary idea argue it opens up voting to everyone — and all political parties. The primary isn't reserved just for Democratic and Republican candidates. Candidates from minor parties can run, too. Many proponents of this approach believe it will help centrist candidates survive the primary.
Opponents say the top-two primary further dilutes the power and appeal of major political parties, which for better or worse have prevented a balkanized political landscape that makes governing even more difficult. They also dismiss claims that the top-two system helps political moderates. They say it is more likely to benefit political extremists.
Who is right is an argument for another day. What's interesting is how the political process could evolve in response to intensifying polarization and partisanship. A big looming question is whether making the voting system more accessible will be enough to convince disaffected citizens to vote. Will a more open candidate nomination process in the primary be enough to ease alienation or will people disgusted with politics see the change as too little, too late?
A more overarching question is whether other trends will have more lasting effects on election outcomes, such as the growth of mono-political regions, where one party is a perpetual winner, or waves of new minority voters, who see the role of government through different eyes and may eventually become the new majority.
People looking at the political ID-ology of American voters may be missing bigger, more sweeping changes that will affect the course of events.