Partisanship and Voting Choice: The Myth of the Reasoning Voter

August 5, 2020

If there was one book I would recommend for a serious student of political behavior, it would be the The American Voter. ( A., Converse, P. E., Miller, W. E., & Stokes, D. E. (1960). Published in 1960, it laid the foundation for all studies on political behavior since.

The cornerstone of their analysis was the concept of partisan identification. Their understanding of party identification goes beyond group attachment like a membership in a club or group, but a psychological identification, “which can persist without legal recognition or evidence of formal membership and even a consistent record of party support.”

In other words, partisanship is a social identification such as religion or an ethnic group, which when invoked can sometimes cause emotional reactions. My mother told me when I was a young to “never to discuss religion or politics” with friends. And she was right.

Most scholars agree that party identification is formed by socialization in your youth, primarily from your parents. There are some recent studies testing the genetic aspects of political behavior, with experiments with identical twins. Although the results are interesting, it does not yet show a significant correlation but likely will in the future.

In an attempt to demonstrate the impact of partisanship on candidate choice, I have collected voting data from 13 presidential elections, 1968 through 2016. Below is a chart of how many voters chose the Republican candidate by their party or non-party affiliation.

Presidential vote for Republican candidate by party identification. Data from General Social Studies survey.

The top line (grey), represents Republican voters percentage for the Republican candidate. For example in 1976, 84.4% of Republicans voted for their party’s choice. The Democrats (darker blue, bottom line) in that same election, only 15.1% chose the Republican candidate. The middle line (light blue), shows how many independent voters selected the Republican.

The average Republican vote for the Republican candidate over these 13 elections was 87.8%. The average Democratic vote for the Republican candidate was 14.5%, an average difference of 73.3%.

There a couple of interesting deviations in this chart. In 1992 and 1996, all three group’s percentages for the Republican candidate declined significantly. In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H. W. Bush by almost 6% in a three was race with Ross Perot.

Bush’s last approval rating was 32% just prior to the election. It’s actually amazing that 75% of Republicans voted for him and it illustrates the power partisanship, even though some obviously defected from their standard bearer.

The Republican vote rebounded in 2000, with 94.2% voting for George W. Bush. After that they stayed the high range with an 88% vote for Donald Trump.

Independents also took a dive from Republicans in 1992 and 1996, but rebounded in 2000, splitting their vote for Bush and Gore. Over the 13 elections, they averaged 43.1% of the vote, which means they voted for Democrats by nearly 47%. That would imply that they lean slightly toward Democratic candidates.

The effect of partisanship is most apparent from polls of Trump’s Job Approval ratings. In the latest national survey by Civiqs of registered voters, shows that Trump’s current job approval rating is 41% (56% disapprove), which is consistent with other major polls.

Missing values “don’t know”

If we break down that rating by party identification, it reveals that his approval rating from Republicans is now 87% (9% disapproval). For Democrats it is 3%, a difference of 84% ! That is a real partisan divide.

This partisan divide suggests that Trump’s path to victory will have to come from Republican and Independent voters and forget about winning enough Democrats to swing his way. It is likely that he would need 90% or more of the Republican vote to have any chance of winning the National vote.

The author’s of the American Voter demonstrated that most voters had likely decided on which candidate to vote for in 2020, when he or she graduated from High School ! They just didn’t know about it yet. With the possible exception of independents, the idea of a free thinking American voter has always been largely a myth. Be safe…

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