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Delegate Views Don't Always Reflect Party As A Whole

Ever wondered whether convention delegates hold political views that are more extreme than most members of their own parties? You could ask them.

CBS has polled delegates to the two major party conventions since 1968. The American Enterprise Institute has put together the numbers regarding delegate opinions about issues of the day. While there aren't any huge surprises, it's still an informative look at how Democratic and Republican activists have become more polarized.

Republican and Democratic delegates tend to be about the same age. In 1968, the median age among both groups was 49, while in 2008 it was 54. But there are other big demographic differences.

The percentage of female Democratic delegates shot up from 13 percent in 1968 to 49 percent four years ago. There were actually more Republican women at the 1968 convention (16 percent), but their numbers have since only doubled to 32 percent in 2008.

Not surprisingly, a similar story can be told about African-Americans, who made up just 5 percent of Democratic delegates in 1968 but had risen to 23 percent in 2008. The percentage of black GOP delegates stood at 2 percent in 1968, hit a peak of 6 percent in 2004, but was back down to 2 percent in 2008.

The AEI analysis covered the 40 years from 1968 to 2008. A demographic breakdown of this year's delegates isn't yet available.

The polling reveals expected differences between the parties on issues such as abortion, the role of government, and foreign policy and trade. What's instructive is how the delegates tend to hold stronger opinions than other members of their parties, as measured by broader public opinion polls.

In 1996, 61 percent of delegates to the Democratic convention believed that abortion should be permitted in all cases, compared with just 30 percent of Democrats at large. By contrast, rank-and-file Republicans were more open to keeping abortion available. Only 18 percent believed it should be permitted only when necessary to save the woman's life, compared with 27 percent of GOP delegates.

Even issues that are no longer salient show how different delegates to the two conventions are. In 2008, nearly all Democratic delegates — 95 percent — believed it was a mistake for the U.S. to have taken military action against Iraq. Eighty percent of Republican delegates believed the U.S. had done the right thing, with only 13 percent viewing the war as a mistake.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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