Polls and Elections: Party Identification in the 2012 Presidential Election

By Winneg, Kenneth M.; Jamieson, Kathleen Hall et al. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Polls and Elections: Party Identification in the 2012 Presidential Election


Winneg, Kenneth M., Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Hardy, Bruce W., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Background

Although party affiliation's role in individual political behavior in the United States has been studied since the 1940s (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944), it became a central focus in the Michigan studies of the 1950s and 1960s (Belknap and Campbell 1951; Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes 1960). Indeed, as Nie, Verba, and Petrocik (1979, 47) noted, in the 1950s and 1960s, party affiliation "was the central thread running through interpretations of American politics" where it was considered "a stable characteristic of the individual: it was likely to be inherited, it was likely to remain steady throughout the citizen's political life, and it was likely to grow in strength during that lifetime."

Party identification is important in part because of its power to predict the presidential vote choice (Barrels 2000). Analyzing data from the American National Election Survey (ANES) from 1952 through 2004, Bafumi and Shapiro (2009) showed that party identification achieved its highest predictive value in 1996 and 2004. Consistent with that analysis, the 2012 National Exit Poll revealed that more than nine in 10 self-identified Republicans (93%) reported casting their ballots for their party nominee, and a nearly equal proportion (92%) of self-styled Democrats sided with the Democratic incumbent president Barack Obama (Cable News Network [CNN] 2012). Indeed strong party attachment predicts straight ticket voting (Schaffner, Streb, and Wright 2001).

The drop in the number of citizens reporting a strong tie to party, a decline that occurred between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s and leveled off in the late-1970s and early-1980s, did not change the fact that most continued to identify with a party (Miller and Shanks 1996). But changes in partisan affiliation did focus scholars on its variability from one election to another with some attributing the differences to simple survey measurement error (Green and Palmquist,1990, 1994; Johnston 2006), and others arguing that party identification can be affected in the short run by events (Franklin and Jackson 1983; Markus and Converse 1979).

Using the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania's (APPC) National Annenberg Election Survey's (NAES) rolling cross-section data, we tracked the root party identification (whether respondent identifies as a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent) in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 elections. In 2000, Johnston, Hagen, and Jamieson found,

   as forces favored Al Gore, the intensity of identification
   strengthened among Democrats and weakened among Republicans, and
   the Democrats share among Independent "leaners" grew and Republican
   share shrank. The opposite happened when forces favored Bush. At
   the end of the campaign, identification with each party
   intensified. (2004, 42-43n.9)

In subsequent years (Winneg and Jamieson 2005, 2010), we also noted some variability during the course of the general election campaign and greater stability in the weeks leading to the elections. In 2004, the gap between self-identified party affiliation narrowed, but in 2008 the tracking indicated a net Democratic advantage, a finding that also showed up in the exit polls (CNN 2008). In this article, we analyze the extent of variability in self-identified party affiliation in the 2012 U.S. presidential general election campaign. We then compare the aggregate 2012 self-identified party affiliation with the prior three U.S. presidential general elections--2008, 2004, and 2000.

Research Questions and Methodology

To track campaign knowledge and learning during the final two months of the presidential campaign, the 2012 APPC Institutions of Democracy (IOD) project conducted a six-wave telephone panel survey that contained both discrete cross-section samples and multiple wave panels. In each wave, party affiliation was collected via self-report. …

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