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Polarized? Not in Alabama, study says

Alabama residents aren’t as politically divided as they seem, according to a study released Friday by a Birmingham think tank.

Black or white, Republican or Democrat, voters in the state list more or less the same top public policy priorities, according to a recent study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, a nonprofit research organization at Samford University.

“We contend that Alabamians are not polarized, but can be made to feel that they are polarized,” said Ryan Hankins, executive director of the group.

PARCA is one of the few organizations that regularly polls wide swaths of Alabamians on politics. For their most recent study, the group interviewed more than 400 residents of the state, asking open-ended questions about the state’s top needs.

Men, women, black and white residents and people in both major political parties seemed to agree that K-12 education and health care were among the top three priorities for the state. For every group, the top-10 priorities lists overlapped substantially. The result let the group to the conclusion, presented in bold face in the study, that “Alabama voters are not polarized.”

That conclusion would seem to fly in the face of a lot of conventional political wisdom. Party identification in Alabama has for years split along racial lines. In 2016, Donald Trump picked up eight out of every 10 votes in overwhelmingly white counties such as Cleburne and Cherokee, while Hillary Clinton saw similar support in mostly black areas such as Greene County.

The Pew Research Center, which has studied polarization for years, found last year that partisan gaps in answers to key philosophical questions — such as whether the U.S. economic system is fair — have grown over the years. The group also found that majorities in both parties are motivated largely by a sense that the other party’s policies are harmful to the country.

PARCA’s study didn’t ask simple either-or questions, allowing people to rank issues on a scale instead. The biggest gap in results, he said, was between regular voters and a group of “experts” — professors, public officials, journalists and lobbyists — that PARCA also asked about the state’s priorities. “Experts” listed infrastructure, prison overcrowding and the state budget as top concerns, something that didn’t appear in regular voters’ priorities. Regular voters were more likely to list mental health and substance abuse as top concerns.

Only two issues showed a sharp racial divide. White voters didn’t list higher education as a top concern. Black voters didn’t list the state’s image as a top problem, something that often appeared on white voters’ lists.

Hankins was cautious about attributing motivations to either choice.

“You could theorize that white voters are thinking of higher education as a personal issue, while African-Americans are thinking more in terms of access, which is a public policy concern,” he said.

Hankins said that while white respondents were more likely to cite the state’s image as a problem, it wasn’t a high priority for whites with high education or income – people who may be more socially mobile than their neighbors.

“It’s possible that the more the image of Alabama sticks to you, the more concerned you are with that image,” he said.

Crucially, about four in 10 respondents said the state was moving in the right direction, with roughly equal numbers saying the state was headed the wrong way.

“Republicans and men were more optimistic about the direction of the state, and women and Democrats were less optimistic,” he said.

Hankins said the results suggest that state leaders could use Alabamians’ common values to forge solutions to state problems that defy traditional party lines and draw wide support.

Asked to cite times that’s happened in the recent past, Hankins couldn’t think of any.

“No,” he said. “No examples.”


Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.