I mentioned in a previous post that I would have more to say about partisan leaners in a future post. Well, this is the post.
First, let’s agree on what party identification is because there are several competing definitions. I am a traditionalist, perceiving party identification (PID) as a psychological attachment to a political party. This definition was originally offered in The American Voter by Professors Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes at the University of Michigan, which was published in 1960. They maintained that this is one of the stronger political attitudes, which means that it is less likely to change than other attitudes. They also maintained that it was usually adopted from one’s family. Because of its strength and relative permanence, they argued that it is a filter through which other political attitudes have to pass. They referred to a “funnel of causality,” tracing a person’s other political attitudes to one’s partisan identification. Voting behavior, for example, is considered to be strongly influenced by one’s partisan identification.
The also developed a method of determining a person’s PID. They asked a basic question: “In politics, do you consider yourself a Democrat, Republican, or Independent?” For those responding either Democrat or Republican, they asked a second question: “Are you a strong or not-so-strong Republican (Democrat)?” For independents, the second question was: “Are you a pure independent, or do you lean toward one of the parties?” The result is a seven-point scale, ranging from strong Democrat on the left to strong Republican on the right. The diagram below illustrates the scale.
Where do registered voters in Texas fall on the PID continuum? In other words, what percentage of Texans falls into each of the seven categories? The results of a May 2012 UT/Texas Tribune poll are represented in the chart below:
If you consider partisans as strong and weak identifiers (SD, WD, SR, WR), then 36 percent of Texas registered voters are Republicans, and 33 percent are Democrats. Independents make up 30 percent of Texas registered voters. However, political scientists have argued about where the “leaners”—Democratic and Republican leaning independents—should be placed. Since the publication of Bruce Keith et al.’s The Myth of the Independent Voter in 1992, political scientists have generally agreed that “leaners” are “closet partisans,” who behave like partisans even though they don’t claim an allegiance to one of the political parties. I have always found accepting this view difficult. If party identification is an emotional attachment to a political party and a person claims no such attachment, why should they be considered partisans? The fact that “leaners” are more supportive of a party’s positions on issues than weak partisans and are more likely to vote for the party’s nominees for public office than weak partisans does not make them partisans.
To some people, the distinction may not seem important, but it has consequences for campaigns and how campaigns target potential voters. If leaners are really partisans, then only about 10 percent of the Texas electorate is independent. If leaners are independents, then about 30 percent of the Texas electorate is independent. If it’s only 10 percent, then they aren’t as consequential to election outcomes, and campaigns should concentrate on mobilizing partisans with partisan appeals. If however, it’s 30 percent, then the campaigns must appeal to independents with messages that are different from their partisan appeals. In other words, it matters!
So, what’s the basis for each side’s view? For those who consider leaners as “closet partisans”—Keith et al., John Petrocik, Alan Abramowitz, and others—the principal reason is that leaners vote for the party’s candidate at a higher rate than weak partisans. Thus, leaners’ behavior (voting) is more like partisans than like independents. However, as Samuel Abrams and Morris Fiorina (2011) assert, the causal relationship could be the other direction: voting causes independents to declare themselves as leaners as they recall their most recent voting decision. In other words, I voted for Obama in the 2008 presidential election; so I must lean toward the Democratic Party. Or, I voted for McCain in the 2008 presidential election; so I must lean toward the Republican Party. Philip Shively made this point in 1980, and this is what I have always believed. Keith et al. and Petrocik also maintain that leaners’ voting decisions demonstrate temporal consistency so that leaners do not vote for one party’s candidates in one election and then switch to another party’s candidates in a subsequent election. Leaners are also no more likely than weak partisans to split their voting decisions during a particular election, voting for some Republicans and some Democrats in the same election.
For those who question the lumping of leaners into one of the partisan camps—Abrams, Fiorina, Todd Eberly, and others—the leaners are not partisans, challenging the now-accepted view that they are partisans. Most recently (March 2012), Third Way released a report by St. Mary's College of Maryland Professor Todd Eberly, using data from a panel study of three successive elections, that made two points about the leaners: (1) leaners were significantly more likely to change their party identification than were Democrats or Republicans, whether strong or weak partisans. (2) leaners switched their vote choice over elections, and Republican leaners were more loyal than Democratic leaners. In response to this study, Abramowitz countered that the study used by Eberly had a small sample size and that there was a larger panel study, conducted during the 2008-2009 period, which showed different results. This survey indicated that very high percentages of Democrats (82 percent) and Republicans (73 percent) retained their position as party leaners from January 2008 until a date more than a year and one-half later. Also, during this period, only five percent of leaners switched to the opposing party. He also points out that the leaners voted for the party toward which they leaned and attributed it to their sharing the dominant ideological orientation of the party toward which they leaned. In response to Abramowitz, Eberly noted that the 2009-2009 panel does allow one to observe partisanship over several elections, unlike the 2000-2004 panel. He added results from a 1992-1997 panel survey. The results of his investigation led Eberly to conclude that partisan loyalty declines over time and is weakest among weak partisans. But he also observed that most defections were by leaners. He concludes that about 20 percent of the electorate are not loyal partisans, and that, “in an era of closely matched political parties and relatively narrow two-party vote shares, winning and maintaining the support of that 20 percent is crucial.”
So, what do you think? Should leaners be considered partisans or are they susceptible to appeals from either political party? Should campaigns concentrate their efforts not only on turning out faithful partisans but also on winning the independents, whether leaners or pure independents?