April 6, 2005

The Dean Activists: Their Profile and Prospects

IV. The Dean Activists

Different Kind of Democrat

Dean activists are a distinctive group within their own party. As a group, they are much more racially homogenous than the general public or Democrats. More than nine-in-ten Dean activists (92%) are white and just 1% are African American. By comparison, the public is 79% white, as are about two-thirds of national Democrats (68%). Over one-in-five Democrats (22%) are African Americans.

Dean activists tend to be not only significantly better educated but also wealthier than other Democrats. Nearly one-in-three Dean activists (29%) report a family income of more than $100,000 per year, nearly triple the proportion of all Democrats (10%) who fall into that income bracket. An overwhelming majority (79%) are college graduates; 41% have earned a graduate or professional degree. Just a quarter of all Democrats, and 26% of the public, are college graduates.

A relatively large proportion of Dean activists (38%) have no formal religious affiliation. Far fewer Democrats (10%) and members of the public (11%) express no religious preference. Moreover, just 24% of Dean activists describe themselves as a “religious person.” Far more (68%), however, say they think of themselves as a “spiritual person.”

Only about a third of Dean activists are affiliated with either the Catholic or Protestant religious traditions (34%). But one-in-five (21%) identified themselves as Unitarians, non-denominational Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, or did not specify an individual religion.

As noted earlier, however, the age profile of Dean activists is similar to that of other Democrats and the public. While news coverage of the Dean campaign focused on his youthful support, the Dean activists are not especially young; just 6% were under 23 and 12% were 23-29, compared with 8% and 10% among Democrats nationally.

Dean activists were also heavily involved in other political and social issues. Nearly eight-in-ten (77%) had signed petitions for something other than the Dean campaign. About half (48%) had participated in a protest, demonstration or rally for an unrelated cause and a similar number (51%) had boycotted a product or company.

Foreign Policy: Support for Diplomacy, Allies

Beyond their opposition to the war in Iraq, Dean activists are united by a broader skepticism toward the use of military force and strong support for multilateralism. While national Democrats, by roughly two-to-one (60%-33%), say it is acceptable to refuse to fight in war that one believes is morally wrong, this view draws much more support among Dean activists (93%).

There is broad agreement among national Democrats (76%) that effective diplomacy, rather than military strength, is the best way to ensure peace. But this sentiment is almost universally shared among Dean activists (96%).

Dean activists also believe that the Islamic religion does not encourage violence to any greater degree than any other religion (78%). Democrats generally are divided on this point; 44% say Islam is more likely to encourage violence among its believers and about the same number say Islam is no more encouraging of violence than other religions.

Libertarian Sentiment

On social issues, Dean activists stand out for their strong support for gay marriage and their near-universal belief that homosexuality should be accepted by society. They are nearly unanimous in their opposition to censoring “dangerous” books from school libraries.

Fully 98% of Dean activists say public school libraries should be able to carry any books they want; just 1% say that public school libraries should ban books “that contain dangerous ideas.” The idea of banning such books draws much more support among all Democrats (41%).

By a similar margin (96%-4%), Dean activists express the view that homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted, rather than discouraged, by society. Again, there is far less unanimity among rank-and-file Democrats on this point, and a majority of black Democrats (59%) believe that homosexuality should be discouraged.

Most Dean activists (69%) say that churches should keep out of day-to-day social and political matters, but a sizable minority (30%), including nearly a quarter (24%) of those with no religious affiliation, think churches should weigh in on the issues of the day. The difference between the activists and other Democrats is narrower on this question than on some other social issues.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) of Dean activists believe that racial discrimination is the main reason many blacks can’t get ahead, but a majority (52%) of Democrats nationally say that blacks are “mostly responsible for their own condition.”

A similar chasm separates the opinions of Dean activists and national Democrats on immigration. Fully 87% of activists think immigrants are strengthening the country, while national Democrats are split: 43% consider immigrants as a burden, 47% think immigrants strengthen the country.

Pro-Government, Doubts on Free Trade

Compared with rank-and-file Democrats, Dean activists are more supportive of government solutions to important national problems. While three-quarters of Dean activists feel that the government often does a better job than people give it credit for, nearly half of Democrats nationally (49%) disagree, instead believing that government is almost always wasteful and inefficient.

Fully 96% of activists want the government to step in to protect the environment even if it hurts business profits and results in the loss of some jobs. With respect to poverty, an overwhelming proportion of Dean activists (93%) but a more modest majority (64%) of Democrats think government benefits do not go far enough to help poor people live decently. And over three-quarters (78%) of Dean activists say that businesses make too much profit, a view shared by 64% of national Democrats.

While a majority of Dean activists (58%) think that free trade agreements such as NAFTA and the WTO are a bad thing for the U.S., a sizable minority (36%) have a positive opinion of trade pacts. Dean activists also are divided over the personal impact of such agreements, with 42% believing that the agreements have helped their family’s financial situation and half (50%) believing that they’ve hurt.

Preference for “Progressive”

One label that Dean activists embrace even more than “Democrat” or “liberal” is the term “progressive.” Nine-out-of-ten activists say they think of themselves as a progressive. Large majorities also say they consider themselves an “internet enthusiast” (84%) and a “patriot” (80%).

A small proportion of Dean activists (13%) characterize themselves as vegetarian. Still smaller fractions said they think of themselves as an anarchist (4%) or National Rifle Association supporter (3%).

With Gov. Dean’s endorsement of civil unions in Vermont, he was able to attract a relatively large number of gays and lesbians to his campaign. The percentage of Dean activists who described themselves as gay, lesbian, or bisexual was double that among Kerry voters, according to the 2004 National Election Pool Exit Poll (12% among Dean activists versus 6% among Kerry voters).

Large majorities of Dean activists express support for federal social programs, but a majority (55%) also describe themselves as fiscal conservatives. In terms of personal finances, equal numbers thought of themselves as working class and financially well-off.

And despite their liberal leanings, many Dean activists do not let their political views interfere with their personal relationships. More than half (53%) reported that they had a strong friendship with someone (excluding close relatives) who is a supporter of George W. Bush.