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AMERICAN PARTY IDENTITY CHANGE SINCE 1960

August 31, 2020

Political scientists generally agree that party-id on at the individual level is relatively stable. Through the socialization process, most Americans adopt most of their political beliefs from their parents (August 30, 2020http://thepoliticsdr.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1768&action=edit)

At the macro level, however, this is less clear due to generational changes and political influences. In this post, I’m going to compare two American time periods and their respective changes in the seven-point party identification measure.

The first period includes the years of 1948 through 1960, a formative period after World War II and Korea that shaped the political beliefs of the Baby Boomer generation.

The second time period covers 1980 through 2020, that follows the Ronald Reagan presidency and ends with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. These two different era’s in American history are significantly different from each other.

In the 50’s, Television was in its infancy and following the Korean War the country was at peace with a booming economy. The second period, followed the Vietnam War and the Watergate crisis. In addition, there were significant demographic racial changes as well.

Considering the political and generational upheaval during this period, you would expect significant changes in voter’s partisan beliefs.

The data for this analysis comes from the American National Election Studies (ANES), a time-series survey project supervised by the University of Michigan and Stanford University. In both time periods, this survey asked the identical questions on party identification. So wording effects should have no effect on responses.

Table below shows the 1948 through 1960 responses and a bar chart of the data.

Years
1948-1960  Party-id    Percent
1. Strong Democrat24
2. Weak Democrat25
3. Independent – Democrat7.8
4. Independent – Independent7.6
5. Independent – Republican7.03
6. Weak Republican14.9
7. Strong Republican14.2

At this point in our history, the Democrats had a significant partisan advantage over the Republicans. This was the era of Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, and just before the 1961 election of John F. Kennedy. In 1948, Harry Truman pulled an upset win over Republican Thomas Dewey.

At this point in our history, Independents were just a small portion of the electorate. And without the persona of General Eisenhower and the Korean War, it would have likely been a total Democratic era.

Let’s now move ahead in time to the 1980 through the 2020 time period and compare how party-id evolved since the 1950’s, as shown in the table and graph below.

 1980-2020 Valid Percent% CHANGE
Party-id1. Strong Democrat20.1-3.5
2. Weak Democrat17.5-7.3
3. Independent – Democrat13.05.2
4. Independent – Independent12.34.7
5. Independent – Republican11.34.3
6. Weak Republican13.0-2
7. Strong Republican12.8-1.4

In this political era, the Democratic party’s share of the electorate shrunk by almost 11% and the Republicans lost 3.4% since 1960.

The big winners here are the Independents. Counting the leaner’s, this group increased by 14 points. Now as I have pointed out in a previous post, many of these leaner’s vote like weak Democrats and Republicans, but it shows a significant movement toward a less partisan identity.

This significant change also had an impact on our elections. In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan won 51.7% of the electorate to politically wounded Jimmy Carter’s 41%. Independent candidates like John Anderson and Ross Perot rose to political prominence.

In the 1992 election, Ross Perot garnered some 19% of the total vote, insuring Bill Clinton’s victory. In 1996, Perot took another 8.4% of the total vote. After this point, no significant independent candidates challenged the reigning two party system.

In the 1948-1960 period, strong and weak Democrats comprised 49% of the electorate and strong and weak Republicans just 23.2%, an almost 26% difference to the Democrats favor.

In the 1980-2020 period, Republicans (weak and strong) were still at almost 26% and Democrats at nearly 38%, an advantage of almost 12%, a decline of 14% from the earlier period.

The 1948-1960 period gave the Republicans two presidential victories and the Democrats two wins. Why didn’t Democrats win all four elections? The obvious reason was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former General of the Army in WW II and in 1952, America was mired in an unpopular Korean War.

And Adlai Stevenson was no John F. Kennedy. The General won the popular vote by over 10 points. The 1956 election was just a rerun of the ’52 election, with Eisenhower defeating Stevenson this time by 14%. The Democrats partisan advantage melted in the face of General Eisenhower and the beginning of the Cold War.

The second era, 1980-2020, produced six Republican presidential victories compared to the Democrats four wins, with the 2020 election still 60 days away. It is important to consider that the popular vote was won by the Democratic candidates – Al Gore and Hilary Clinton.

Both of these period examples show that partisan attachments are just part of the story. Candidates and salient issues still are important. In addition, the Republican party in the modern era, has always been the underdog in party-id. They have compensated this fact by two major advantages: turnout and money.

But in the election for president this year, I believe that the distribution of votes between Donald Trump and Joe Biden will have similar, but not identical pattern as the 2016 election.

Why? Although the Covid-19 virus still rages and should be a major reason for vote choice, the real issue is still Donald J. Trump. His supporters will still vote for him even if they’re on a ventilator.

The two tables blow are voters self-reports of how they voted in 2016 by their level of party-id strength.

20161. Strong Republican2. Weak Republican3. Lean Republican
Trump86%67%66%
Clinton1.40%8.50%7.90%


20164. Independent5. Lean Democrat6. Weak Democrat7. Strong Democrat
Trump 19%10%11.80%9.60%
Clinton19%52%53%76%

Notice that strong Republicans gave Trump 10 points more than strong Democrats gave Clinton. This pattern continues where Trump adherents consistently out vote their Democratic counterparts.

This is typical of Democratic and Republican voting patterns. In other words, Democratic defections are common and for Republicans rare.

The question is will this voting pattern continue in 2020? Will weak and independent Democrats come back for Joe Biden? We won’t know until after the final votes are counted. Don’t stay up late on November 3 for the final results. Get some sleep, you won’t miss anything. Be safe…

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