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Party identiﬁcation is one of the central explanatory concepts used in the analysis of voting behavior in mature democracies. It refers to the enduring aﬀective (emotional) attachment a voter feels towards a particular political party which disposes him or her to vote for that party in elections. Republican ‘identiﬁers,’ for example, are much more likely than other voters to vote Republican in a range of diﬀerent elections; Democrat identiﬁers are similarly more likely to vote Democrat. A distinction is sometimes made between ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ identiﬁers, depending on the strength of the individual’s attachment to the party in question. Both of these groups are contrasted with ‘ﬂoating’ or ‘independent’ voters, who exhibit no obvious attachment to one party over time and who frequently switch their votes between parties at succeeding elections. Party identiﬁcation is sometimes referred to as ‘partisanship.’ The two terms are used interchangeably here.
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1. Intellectual Context
The concept of party identiﬁcation was originally developed as an integral part of the Michigan social psychological model of voting behavior. Partly through socialization experiences in childhood and in the workplace, individuals come to feel that their own political beliefs and values are ‘closer’ to the core ideological and policy positions of one party rather than another. Some individuals will enter adulthood as fully ﬂedged ‘identiﬁers’ with a particular party. For others, the process may take longer. But the more frequently that an individual votes for a particular party over time, the more likely it is that s/he will come to ‘feel closer to’ or ‘identify with’ that party: s/he will become a ‘party identiﬁer.’ This, in turn, will reinforce the individual’s tendency to continue to vote for the party, even when other factors might militate against it.
Although party identiﬁcation is primarily a psychological concept, it also has a direct counterpart in rational choice theory in Downs’ concept of the ‘standing vote.’ According to Downs, voters can develop a habit of voting for one party as a way of reducing the costs of continuously collecting and evaluating political information. Relatively early in their political lives, they make judgements about which party is closest to their own ideological positions and tend subsequently to continue to support that party unless and until some major political trauma causes them to reassess their early judgement. Fiorina’s work on voting in the USA goes some way to combining the psychological notion of aﬀective attachment with Down’s idea of the standing vote. Fiorina argues that party identiﬁcation is best seen as a running tally, or cumulation, of voters’ retrospective evaluations of the major parties. In short, identiﬁcation results from a voter’s perception that a particular party has outperformed its rival(s) over time; it disposes the voter to support that party in the current election.
2. Emphases In Current Theory And Research
The concept of party identiﬁcation has been deployed in four main ways. The ﬁrst, and most extensive, use is as a ‘nonproximate’ cause of vote choice. Voters are obviously swayed by a variety of diﬀerent factors in deciding how to cast their votes in elections. These include voters’ perceptions of any triumphs or disasters that occur in the ﬁnal weeks of a campaign, their perceptions of the candidates’ character; their views of the policy stances of the parties; and their assessments of the parties’ performance in oﬃce and in opposition.
For advocates of the party identiﬁcation approach, a crucial additional factor is the extent to which voters are predisposed—independently of any of the above ‘proximate’ factors—to support one or other of the parties because they ‘identify’ with it. On this account, the eﬀects of proximate causes of the vote can only be properly estimated if the underlying eﬀects of voters’ prior partisan identiﬁcations have been fully taken into account. Concomitantly, explanations of voting choices (and election outcomes) that underplay the importance of long-term party identiﬁcations risk overstating the signiﬁcance of the more proximate factors that explain voting choices. In all this, there is no suggestion that party identiﬁers always vote for the party with which they identify. On the contrary, it is entirely possible for even strong identiﬁers on occasion to vote against ‘their’ party because other more proximate factors weigh more heavily in their vote calculations. In US presidential elections, for example, between ﬁve and twenty percent of identiﬁers typically vote ‘against’ the party they identify with. For these voters, party policies, party performance or the leadership qualities of the rival candidates (or some other proximate factors) must have weighed more heavily than traditional party loyalties. Party identiﬁcation theory argues, however, that in subsequent elections ‘defecting identiﬁers’ are highly likely, other things being equal, to bring their voting behavior back into line with their partisan identity; they return to their traditional partisanship.
The second usage of the concept of party identiﬁcation follows from the ﬁrst. If prior identiﬁcations dispose citizens to vote in particular ways, then those identiﬁcations are also likely to color the way in which voters interpret political information. Party identiﬁcation in this sense acts as a framing factor—a sort of perceptual ﬁlter—which disposes voters to view their party’s policies, its leaders, and its record in a more favorable light than might otherwise be the case. It simultaneously disposes voters to view other parties’ characteristics less favorably. This implies that voting choices are not only aﬀected directly by party identiﬁcation. These choices are also aﬀected indirectly because of the ‘coloring’ eﬀects of identiﬁcation on voters’ perceptions of the parties’ competing attractions—perceptions which in turn also inﬂuence the way people vote.
A third use of the concept of party identiﬁcation is made by the political parties themselves in devising electoral strategy. Party strategists are always aware of the need both to mobilize their party’s own identiﬁers and to appeal to those voters who in the past have not been inclined to lend the party their support. In the early stages of a campaign, the main task is to trigger the support of existing partisans; in later stages it is to convert neutrals and those who identify with competing parties. Measures of party identiﬁcation give strategists some idea of the size of their ‘core vote.’ This is the minimum level of support that parties can expect to obtain in a general election and against which, once the election outcome is known, their strategists can judge their success in recruiting new supporters. The need to provide participants in the democratic process with accurate information about their performance puts a particular premium on the accuracy of estimates of partisanship levels. For this reason debates about the measurement of party identiﬁcation (which are discussed below) involve more than just matters of academic interest.
The ﬁnal usage of the concept of partisanship is as a phenomenon its own right that requires analysis and explanation. To argue, as party identiﬁcation theory does in relation to any given election, that a major reason why voters vote Republican or Democrat—or Conservative or Labour—is that they are already Republican or Democrat, identiﬁers does not, on the face of it, seem to explain very much. Indeed, it borders on the tautological. The notion that ‘I vote Republican because I am a Republican identiﬁer’ immediately begs the question as to why I identify with the Republicans in the ﬁrst place. As implied above, party identiﬁcation theory’s answer to this question is that partisanship develops as a result of long-term exposure to a variety of socialization processes in the individual’s family, school, workplace, and social milieu.
Note, however, that socialization experiences of this sort fail to provide an obvious explanation as to why some voters switch their identiﬁcations (from Republican to Democrat or from Labour to Conservative, for example) midway through their voting lives. Fiorina’s notion of identiﬁcation as a cumulative updating of retrospective assessments of party performance plays a useful explanatory role in this context. Consider a voter A who, as a result of childhood and early adult socialization experiences, identiﬁes with—and accordingly votes for—the Conservatives at election e1. Assume further that the Conservatives appear so incompetent at the subsequent elections e2 and e3 that A switches his vote to Labour on both occasions. In these circumstances, A may also shift his identiﬁcation to Labour to reﬂect the fact that his ‘running tally’ of retrospective performance now favors Labour rather than the Conservatives. Although Fiorina’s analysis does not predict the precise point at which voters will switch their identiﬁcation from one party to another, it oﬀers a plausible explanation as to how, notwithstanding their early political socialization, voters can change their identiﬁcations over time.
3. Methodological Issues: The Problem Of Measurement
A key methodological issue concerns the extent to which the party identiﬁcation measures developed in the USA in the 1950s can be successfully transplanted to other political contexts. Data from successive US National Election Studies (NES) suggest that roughly three-quarters of US voters are either Republican or Democrat identiﬁers (the remaining quarter are ‘independents’) and that substantial proportions of voters retain their partisan identities over time. Given that these ﬁndings are consistent with the idea of party identiﬁcation being both widespread and durable, the concept of partisanship has maintained a prominent position in analyses of electoral outcomes and electoral change. Indeed, most published accounts of US voting behavior include either controls for, or estimates of, the eﬀects of partisanship on the vote.
Not surprisingly, when eﬀorts have been made to extend the theories and methods of the NES to other countries, the concept of party identiﬁcation has been ‘exported’ as a central part of the package. An early example was the inclusion of a party identiﬁcation question in the 1964 British Election Study (BES) survey. The question was borrowed directly from the NES and it has been employed with only minor variations in question-wording since:
Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as Conservative, Labour, Liberal-Democrat, (Nationalist) or what?
The phrase ‘generally speaking’ is intended to tap the idea that party identiﬁcation—as opposed to the more immediate and ephemeral notion of current party preference—endures over time; ‘think of yourself’ attempts to capture the respondent’s political identity.
Most analysts of British electoral politics would endorse the idea that party identiﬁcation plays an important role in explaining UK voting decisions. However, considerable doubt has also been expressed as to whether the traditional partisanship question measures anything very diﬀerent from voters’ current party political preferences. There are two major reasons for supposing that it does not. First, responses to the standard question outlined above suggest that, since the 1960s, 90–5 percent of British voters have had some sort of party identiﬁcation. This is clearly a much higher level of ‘measured’ partisanship than in the USA, which should in turn imply much greater stability over time in British voting patterns. Yet electoral volatility since the 1970s has not been noticeably lower in the UK than in the USA. Second, it is clear from British data that major shifts in party identiﬁcation levels (in 1979, 1983, and 1997) have coincided exactly with major shifts in voting behavior —implying that both, perhaps, are indicators of current political preferences rather than separate phenomena. This conclusion is supported by monthly time-series data collected by Gallup which show that short-term ﬂuctuations in British partisanship correlate very strongly with short-term changes in party support levels. More formal tests, based on the principles of ‘convergent validity’ indicate that, in Britain at least, extant measures of party identiﬁcation are statistically indistinguishable from measures of voting preference. This in turn implies that models of vote choice which include party identiﬁcation as an explanatory variable are tautologically mis-speciﬁed.
Although these diﬃculties have not been precisely replicated in all of the countries where partisanship measures have been deployed, similar problems have been encountered in a variety of diﬀerent national contexts. As a result, many analysts outside the USA have expressed concern that in non-American contexts (where the concept of the ‘political independent’ is less well developed) the standard NES question invites respondents to admit to a partisan identity even when they do not have one. This has led a number of researchers to advocate the use of a ‘ﬁlter’ mechanism in measuring partisanship, such as the following:
I am now going to ask you a question about party politics in [country]. Some people think of themselves as usually being a supporter of one political party rather than another. Setting aside your current views about the government and opposition parties, do you usually think of yourself as being a supporter of one particular party or not?
If YES, which one is that?
The key feature of the ﬁlter is that it allows survey respondents to indicate from the outset that they do not usually think of themselves as being supporters of a particular political party. Survey experiments using ﬁlters of this kind have been conducted in Canada, the UK, the USA, and elsewhere. The measured levels of party identiﬁcation fall considerably as a result. In Canada, switching from the traditional question to the ﬁlter approach reduces measured party identiﬁcation levels from 70 percent to 40 percent of the electorate; in the UK, identiﬁcation falls from around 90 percent to under 50 percent; and in the USA it falls from roughly 70 percent to 60 percent. The eﬀects of using a ﬁlter, in short, are very considerable outside the USA, implying that levels of party identiﬁcation in other countries may have been signiﬁcantly overestimated in much academic research where the traditional NES question has been imported for local use. This is obviously important in purely descriptive terms but it also suggests signiﬁcant measurement error problems in any statistical models that (outside the USA) have used party identiﬁcation measures.
The problems of measuring party identiﬁcation eﬀectively do not stop here, however. A critical feature of partisanship is that it is, for the individual voter, an enduring feature of his or her political makeup. Partisanship should therefore be quite stable at the individual level over time, which implies that an individual should respond to the party identiﬁcation question in a consistent way over time. Since 1991, the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) has been collecting annual data on party identiﬁcation in the UK using the sort of ‘ﬁlter’ question outlined above. In every wave of the panel, under 50 percent of respondents have indicated that they have a party identiﬁcation. In the general election year of 1997, for example, 28 percent of the sample were Labour identiﬁers, 14 percent were Conservative identiﬁers, and 4 percent Liberal Democrat identiﬁers. As intimated earlier, these levels are clearly much lower than those recorded on the basis of the traditional NES question wording. But the measurement problem extends much further than this. Party identiﬁcation is supposed to be a stable and enduring characteristic of individual voters. The BHPS reinterviews the same respondents in successive annual waves of the survey. We can therefore inspect the data to see how far individuals retain the same party identiﬁcations over time. As Table 1 shows, even if we consider only a 9.5 percent of respondents consistently responded as Conservative identiﬁers and only 7.9 percent consistently as Labour identiﬁers. In waves 5, 6, and 7 (1995–7), only 6.9 percent were consistent Conservative identiﬁers and 12.5 percent Labour identiﬁers. The remainder (excluding the trivial number of consistent Liberal Democrats) were either consistent nonidentiﬁers (33.8 percent) or else switched identiﬁcations across waves (45.8 percent). In short, only around 20 percent of British voters in the 1990s were ‘genuine’ party identiﬁers in the sense that the measuring instrument used: (a) allowed them to indicate from the outset that they had no particular attachment to any party; and (b) required them to declare the same general partisan commitment on three (and only three—the ﬁgures are even lower if the length of the rolling window is extended!) successive occasions.
Where does this leave us? Party identiﬁcation is a theoretical construct that makes a great deal of intuitive sense. It tells us that individuals have long-term, enduring attachments to political parties and this idea in turn helps us to understand why individuals often vote for the same party in successive elections. Yet when we try to measure partisanship, things become far less clear. Generations of American scholars have happily employed the concept, conﬁdent that the NES question wording eﬀectively captures the enduring nature of the partisan’s aﬀective commitment to his or her party. However, data from other countries—and especially from Britain—casts considerable doubt on the use of the concept in other national contexts. In the UK, large numbers of voters—much larger than are revealed by the NES question—appear to have no commitment to any political party. And of those that do, less than 20 percent retain that commitment over a three-year period. In short, if party identiﬁcation denotes an enduring aﬀective attachment to a particular political party, then partisanship in the UK at least is very much a minority predisposition.
Future research which seeks to employ the notion of party identiﬁcation will need to address two major issues. The ﬁrst, discussed above, is the need to develop operational empirical measures of the concept that are both durable and have substantive meaning in the speciﬁc national contexts in which they used. Critically, these new operational measures must distinguish eﬀectively between voting choice and partisanship. The second issue concerns the impact of the longer-term process of ‘partisan dealignment.’ It is generally acknowledged that, however partisanship is measured, levels of party identiﬁcation have gradually fallen in most democracies since the 1970s. Electorates have become increasingly volatile and voters increasingly prepared to behave like ‘electoral consumers,’ picking and choosing between parties on the basis of the rival policy and leadership packages on oﬀer. In these circumstances, as Fiorina observed, partisan attachments acquired early in voters’ political lives are likely to be less important in determining voting choices than the more temporary ‘brand loyalties’ associated with the perception that ‘party X currently appears more competent in managerial terms than party Y.’
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