Perspectives on the Decline of Partisanship in the United States

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

24 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



1. Introduction

2. The concept of partisanship

3. Explaining the decline of partisanship
3.1 Empirical Data
3.2 Socio-economic factors and party identification
3.3 The rise of issue voting and candidate voting

4. Consequences of the decline of party identification

5. Conclusion

List of figures:

Figure 2.1: The Seven-Point Party Identification Scale

Figure 3.1: The decline of party identification 1952-1992 / general

Figure 3.2: The decline of party identification 1952-1980 / Seven-Point Scale

Figure 3.3: Proportion of party identifiers voting for candidates of other parties in presidential elections

Figure 3.4: Proportion of party identifiers voting for candidates of other parties in local / state elections

1. Introduction

The question which role parties have in political life in the United States has concerned scholars for more than a century.

Beginning with the introduction of the first statewide primaries in South Carolina in 1896, when the power of candidate nomination was taken away from party bosses and transferred to all party members or affiliates, there is a tendency that parties lose influence not only in elections and other political processes, but also in everyday life in the United States.

In this paper I will try to draw a rough outline of the discussion that has taken place in the last decades in order to give an overview on different theoretical approaches to the decline of party identification as well as on some of the consequences of this development. Naturally, this paper cannot deal with many other aspects of party identification, e.g. drawn from modernization theory or psychology.[1] But, despite these limitations, the results presented in the concluding chapter provide some evidence for the thesis that U.S. Parties are in a state of decline and that this decline can have severe impacts on U.S. political and social life.

This paper is structured as follows: In chapter 2, I will draw an outline of the different theoretical approaches to the concept of partisanship, ranging from socio-psychological attachment to Rational Choice theory and Multidimensional approaches. Chapter 3 is the longest part of this paper and deals with the reasons for the decline of party identification. After discussing some empirical data, I will turn to socio-economic factors leading to partisan dealignment before analysing the rise of issue and candidate voting. In chapter 4 I will present a brief outlook on some of the consequences of the decline of party identification on different levels of political and social life in the United States. The last chapter consists of a short summary of the findings of this paper and some concluding remarks.

2. The concept of partisanship

The concept of partisanship, or party identification,[2] in the United States needs some closer investigation. This is the case, because unlike German parties, the Republican or Democratic parties are not mass parties and do not have any kind of formal membership, or as Larry J. Sabato puts it: “Most American voters identify with a party but do not belong to it.”[3] Thus, political scientists cannot use the data gathered from surveying membership numbers to measure the level of political participation in the United States. Another problem that arises is that “activists may attach themselves to individual candidates rather than to parties and it is often difficult to decide when such activist should be considered as supporters of that candidate’s party.”[4] Thus, in this chapter I will give a brief overview of the different aspects of party identification in the U.S. before examining some approaches for measuring identification and gathering comparable data.

Different views on party identification - The Michigan School

The scholarly literature in the field of party identification research offers a wide array of reasons for which persons identify with a certain party. One of the most prominent approaches, concerned with socio-psychological attachment, is laid out in The American Voter, a book first published in 1960 after an extensive survey on political attitudes and behaviour at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In this book the authors, Angus Campbell et al, took a strong position for the socio-psychological attachment thesis:

“Only in the exceptional case does the sense of individual attachment to party reflect a formal membership or an active connection with a party apparatus. Nor does it simply denote a voting record, although the influence of party allegiance on electoral behavior is strong. Generally this tie is a psychological identification, which can persist without legal recognition or evidence of formal membership and even without consistent record of party support.”[5]

Based on data gathered from two surveys, Campbell and his colleagues came to the conclusion that the socio-psychological attachment displayed by the persons, who identified with a party could be regarded as a means for predicting their voting behaviour. This view “... catapulted them into the forefront of the behavioural revolution in political science”,[6] and was subjected to criticism especially for its operationalization.[7] Apart from methodological criticism, Campbell’s conceptualization of party identification has been questioned by a number of political scientists especially because of the strong relationship between partisanship and electoral behaviour.[8]

Different views on party identification – Rational Choice Models

There are several aspects that have led political scientists to question the model proposed by Campbell and his colleagues. One approach that accepts the notion of the salience of psychological attachment for party identification but identifies other sources of motivation for identification is the application of the economics of information to politics, labelled Rational Choice in recent scientific discourse.[9] In this approach, individuals are seen as utility maximizing agents whose attachment to a certain party is not only based on affections to ideas or candidates but also on the party’s function as “information shortcut”. According to this theory, parties are regarded as a means of gathering information without having to undergo the process of direct information acquisition. In other words: “Voters will rely on information shortcuts because they do not have much incentive to gather information about politics solely in order to improve their voting choices”.[10]

This theory has also provoked some criticism, mainly concerning the application of the concept of information in a Rational Choice model of party identification. Downs’ often-quoted statement that “[i]t may be rational for a man to delegate part or all of his political decision-making to others, no matter how important it is that he make correct decisions”,[11] makes clear that information is regarded merely as a utility that can be maximized by a channelling institution, namely a party. This rather functionalist view, however, does not account for variables like normative predispositions, beliefs or the attachment to parties as institutions in a democratic system.[12]

Different views on party identification – The Multidimensional Model

Having examined the Michigan School’s model of psychological identification and the Rational Choice model of utility maximization and information shortcuts, I will now turn to a multidimensional model, mainly shaped by Herbert F. Weisberg.[13] In his approach to party identification, Weisberg and some scholars who work with his model criticize three fundamental assumptions of the Michigan School’s psychological model: (1) the assumption that people can identify with only one party rather than investigating their attitudes towards both parties; (2) the assumption that political independence is the exact opposite of party identification; (3) the assumption that parties are more important than the Americans’ identification with the party system.[14]

Weisberg’s main argument against these assumptions is that persons –and thus voters- can have multiple and varied identifications. He tries to show this at the example of sports. His argument is that it is possible to identify with teams from rivalling cities at the same time, e.g. identifying with the New York Yankees (baseball) and the New Jersey Devils (hockey). Transferred to party identification this model proposes that

“[s]ome people might actually consider themselves both Republicans and Democrats. Some might be Independents because they like both parties equally, and still others might be Independents because they positively value political independence. Indeed, some people might consider themselves both Republicans (or Democrats) and Inde pendents, particularly if they generally support Republican issue stands but feel that one should vote on the basis of issues rather than party.”[15]

As can be seen in this quotation, Weisberg’s multidimensional model not only questions the Michigan School’s psychological identification model, but also takes a critical stance towards a Rational Choice model of partisanship, because normative aspects like values are considered. Furthermore, the concept of multiple identifications cannot be explained using a model based on information shortcuts, as the advantage drawn from using a party as a source of aggregated information is compensated if the voter has to decide between two sources.

Having briefly discussed the different models of party identification, one problem still remains: How can party identification be measured without formal membership in parties?

The problem of measurement – different scales

The standard operationalization of the measurement of party identification is a seven-point scale introduced by Campbell et al in The American Voter.[16] As shown in Figure 2.1, this scale is used to construct questionnaires for surveys analysing party identification.

Figure 2.1

The Seven-Point Party Identification Scale

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Source: Kamieniecki, Party Identification, 16

According to this method, the interviewees are asked fairly straightforward questions regarding their affiliation to one of the two parties. Then the respondents are asked whether their affiliation is strong or weak or, in the case of the Independents, whether they lean towards a party or not. Thus, measurement of party identification is possible without having the benefit of accessible membership numbers.[17]


[1] See, for example, Geoffrey Evans (ed.), The End of Class Politics? Class Voting in Comparative Context, New York 1999, or John H. Aldrich, Why Parties? The Origin and Transformation of Party Politics an America, Chicago 1995.

[2] Both terms, partisanship and party identification, are used in the literature to describe the same issue.

[3] Larry J. Sabato, The Party’s Just Begun. Shaping Political Parties for America’s Future, Boston 1988, 111.

[4] Alan Ware, Political Parties and Party Systems, New York 1996, 90.

[5] Angus Campbell et al, The American Voter, New York 1960, 121.

[6] Sheldon Kamieniecki, Party Identification, Political Behavior, and the American Electorate, Westport 1985, 15.

[7] Campbell and his associates developed a seven-point party identification scale measuring from Strong Democrats via Pure Independents to Strong Republicans. The complete theoretical conceptionalization and operationalization cannot be displayed in this paper. For a detailed description of their methodology, see Ibid. 16f.

[8] See, for example, Morris P. Fiorina, Retrospective Voting in American National Elections, New Haven 1981, 9-12, or Jack Dennis, “Theories of Turnout: An Empirical Comparison of Alienationist and Rationalist Perspectives”, in: William Crotty (ed.), Political Participation and American Democracy, New York 1991, 23-67.

[9] For an introduction to the use of rational choice theory in studies on participation and identification, see Anthony Downs, An Economic Theory of Democracy, New York 1957.

[10] Samuel L. Popkin, The Reasoning Voter. Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns,

Chicago 1991, 13.

[11] Downs, Economic Theory of Democracy, 233.

[12] Martin P. Wattenberg, The Decline Of American Political Parties 1952-1992. Cambridge, Mass. 1994, 15f.

[13] Herbert F. Weisberg, ”A Multidimensional Conceptualization of Party Identification”, in: Political Behavior, Vol. 2 No. 1 (1980), 33-60.

[14] Kamieniecki, Party Identification, 27f.

[15] Weisberg, “Multidimensional Conceptualization“, 36.

[16] Angus Campbell et al, The American Voter, 123-24.

[17] Kamieniecki, Party Identification, 16.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Perspectives on the Decline of Partisanship in the United States
University of Kassel  (Anglistics/American Studies)
The vote of the american president
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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587 KB
Perspectives, Decline, Partisanship, United, States
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Christof Dieterle (Author), 2004, Perspectives on the Decline of Partisanship in the United States, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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