Exploring the Bases of Partisanship in the American Electorate: Social Identity vs. Ideology

By Abramowitz, Alan I.; Saunders, Kyle L. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Exploring the Bases of Partisanship in the American Electorate: Social Identity vs. Ideology


Abramowitz, Alan I., Saunders, Kyle L., Political Research Quarterly


This article uses data from the 1952-2004 American National Election Studies and the 2004 U.S. National Exit Poll to compare the influence of ideology and membership in social groups on party identification. Contrary to the claim by Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) that party loyalties are rooted in voters' social identities, we find that party identification is much more strongly related to voters' ideological preferences than to their social identities as defined by their group memberships. Since the 1970s, Republican identification has increased substantially among whites inside and outside of the South with the most dramatic gains occurring among married voters, men, and Catholics. Within these subgroups, however. Republican gains have occurred mainly or exclusively among self-identified conservatives. As a result, the relationship between ideology and party identification has increased dramatically. This has important implications for voting behavior. Increased consistency between ideology and party identification has contributed to higher levels of party loyalty in presidential and congressional elections.

In Partisan Hearts and Minds: Political Parties and the Social identities of Voters, Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler (2002) argue that party identification in the United States is based on voters' social identities rather than on a rational assessment of the parties' policies or performance in office. Challenging many of the conclusions of recent research on party identification in the American electorate, Partisan Hearts and Minds has attracted the attention of pundits (Brooks 2004) as well as scholars.

Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) make four major claims about the nature of contemporary party identification:

1. Party identification is more stable at both the aggregate and the individual level than most recent scholarship has suggested. Outside of the South, there has been little change in the distribution of party identification in the U.S. for several decades (52-84).

2. Voters' party loyalties are largely insulated from the effects of current issues such as the state of the economy and the performance of the incumbent president (85-108).

3. Party loyalties exert a powerful influence on citizens' issue positions, evaluations of political leaders, and voting decisions (204-29).

4. Most importantly, party identification is based mainly on identification with social groups rather than a rational evaluation of the parties' ideological orientations or policies (25-51). According to Green, Palmquist, and Schickler "people ask themselves two questions when deciding which party to support: What kinds of social groups come to mind as I think about Democrats, Republicans, and Independents? Which assemblage of groups (if any) best describes me?" (8).

In proposing this social identity theory, Green, Palmquist, and Schickler explicitly challenge rational choice explanations of party identification such as those proposed by Downs (1957) and Fiorina (1981). Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) view party identification as an emotional attachment grounded in enduring group loyalties rather than a deliberate choice based on a preference for one set of policy positions over another-a choice that can be modified if parties' policy positions change or new issues arise (Page and Jones 1979; Franklin and Jackson 1983; Carmines, Mclver, and Stimson 1987; Luskin, Mclver, and Carmines 1989; Franklin 1992).

Like Campbell et al. (1960), Green, Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) downplay the role of issues and ideology in the formation of party identification. While recognizing that party loyalties can be influenced by dramatic changes in the parties' policy stands or ideological positions, Green, Palmquist, and Schickler argue that such shifts are relatively rare and generally confined to periods of major realignment such as the New Deal era in the United States. …

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