Party Identification in the Age of Obama: Evidence on the Sources of Stability and Systematic Change in Party Identification from a Long-Term Panel Survey

Date01 June 2019
Published date01 June 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2019, Vol. 72(2) 309 –328
© 2018 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912918784215
The nature of party identification change is the subject of
one of the longest running, most prominent debates in the
study of American political behavior. The argument that
party identification is a stable, social psychological,
affective phenomenon is a central feature of The American
Voter and the Michigan School of political behavior
(Campbell et al. 1960). In contrast stand accounts that
treat party identification as a dynamic cognitive phenom-
enon that is influenced by short-term political forces.
In this article, we leverage data from The American
Panel Survey (TAPS), which asked the standard party
identification (PID) battery twenty times over the 2011–
2016 period, to reexamine these questions and provide a
clearer answer about the nature of party identification. A
panel interviewed on such a frequent basis over such a
long period of time—nearly the entirety of President
Obama’s second term—provides an unprecedented look
at party identification in the United States. Moreover,
TAPS included monthly questions evaluating the parties,
presidential job performance, and views on the state of
the economy, which allows us to assess the relationship
between moving political evaluations and party identifi-
cation. In all, these data give us a fresh and powerful
basis for reevaluating long-standing arguments about the
nature of party identification change.
We take advantage of the uniquely rich data from
TAPS to support three hypotheses. First, we show that
party identification changes systematically at the indi-
vidual level even after accounting for measurement error
and autocorrelation. This finding directly contradicts
several previous accounts that treat changes in party
identification as artifacts of the survey process. Second,
we find that shifts in party identification are associated
with individuals’ changing evaluations of the two major
parties and appraisals of the president. We believe that
our analysis is the most comprehensive study to date
demonstrating a direct link between evaluations of the
784215PRQXXX10.1177/1065912918784215Political Research QuarterlyTucker et al.
1Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA
2Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, MO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Patrick D. Tucker, Institution for Social and Policy Studies, Yale
University, 77 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511, USA.
Party Identification in the Age of Obama:
Evidence on the Sources of Stability and
Systematic Change in Party Identification
from a Long-Term Panel Survey
Patrick D. Tucker1, Jacob M. Montgomery2, and Steven S. Smith2
Political scientists have long disagreed about the nature of individual-level change in party identification. While
some scholars conclude that party identification is a stable identity—attributing changes in individual responses to
measurement error—others show that aggregate party identification responds systematically to short-term forces
such as presidential approval. In this article, we use a unique long-term panel measuring party identification twenty
times in the 2011–2016 period to support a subtle compromise between these competing claims. We show that
individual-level party identification changes systematically over time even after accounting for measurement error and
that this change is related to short-term evaluations of the parties and the president. However, although such change
exists, it is modest in the medium term and more common among specific subsets of respondents. Finally, we show
that that these findings are robust to numerous alternative modeling strategies. We believe that our analysis provides
the most systematic examination to date of individual-level changes in party identification.
party identification, panel data, presidential approval
310 Political Research Quarterly 72(2)
political environment and changes in party identification
at the individual level. Third, despite the evidence of sys-
tematic change in individual-level identification, we also
demonstrate that party identification remains stable for
certain individuals. In particular, we show that change in
party identification is less common among African
Americans and negatively associated with age and famil-
ial socialization. Finally, in “Alternative Analyses:
Possible Endogeneity” section and our online appendi-
ces, we show that these findings are robust to a number
of alternative modeling strategies.
In all, our study concludes that while party identifica-
tion is remarkably stable and persistent for many voters,
it is not the “unmoved mover” as it is sometimes charac-
terized in the literature, where changes occur only during
periods of political instability (i.e., “realignments”).
Neither, however, does party identification fluctuate flu-
idly in response to every political event. Instead, we
argue that party identification changes at the margins in
response to short-term political forces, but that this
change is gradual and restricted to individuals with less
entrenched partisan identification. That is, party identifi-
cation is a reflection of individuals’ present evaluations
of the political environment and changes meaningfully
during periods of normal politics to reflect citizens’ eval-
uations of current events and the political environment.
Yet, changes are neither rapid nor universal, occurring
gradually and primarily among individuals whose back-
ground and circumstances fail to reenforce their partisan
social identity.
Central Questions About Party
The social psychological concept of party identification
has its origins in some of the earliest work on political
behavior (e.g., Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944).
In this view, party identification is a social identity devel-
oped in early life experience, is internalized through
socialization, biases perceptions of the social world, and
has a lasting effect on the political attitudes of many, if
not most, people (Hyman 1959; Mannheim 1952). This
understanding was extended in The American Voter,
which treats party identification as an indicator of a psy-
chological attachment—a social identity—that biases the
processing of information about candidates, issues,
events, and vote choice (Campbell et al. 1960). This pro-
cess generates a “persistent adherence” to a party that,
while not immutable, stabilizes partisan preferences over
a lifetime. Further studies directly confirmed that party
identification is transmitted (if imperfectly) from genera-
tion to generation as a social identity. In particular, the
Niemi and Jennings studies (e.g., Jennings and Niemi
1981) measure party identification of both parents and
children in interviews conducted in 1965, 1973, 1982,
and 1997 and show the transmission of party identifica-
tion as a social identity through familial socialization.
In contrast stand various theoretical accounts that treat
responses to party identification as a more fluid concept:
an affective attachment that responds to the flow of politi-
cal events and reflects changing views of the two major
parties, the economy, and the president. Various theoreti-
cal accounts in this PID-as-dynamic-attitude camp, with
origins dating as far back as Downs (1957) and Key
(1966), argue that short-term political forces readily influ-
ence party identification (see also Achen 1992; Fiorina
1981). For instance, aggregate data suggest that party
identification at the national level moves systematically in
response to events such as recessions and wars (MacKuen,
Erikson, and Stimson 1989). Economic performance, con-
sumer sentiment, and crucial political events all predict
changes in aggregate-level party identification, which
suggests (but does not prove) that individual-level parti-
san identity responds to these factors as well.
The debate between these competing camps on the
nature of party identification is vast and rich, and no one
study is capable of arbitrating between all of the available
theories. (Indeed, it is not clear that there truly is a single
analysis that could put this longrunning debate to rest.)
Nonetheless, we believe that the unique granularity of the
TAPS survey, which measures party identification twenty
times over the course of four and a half years, justifies
reexamining some of the central questions in the litera-
ture: (1) Does party identification change? (2) Does party
identification change in response to short-term political
evaluations? and (3) What are the sources of individual-
level heterogeneity in party identification stability?
One of the central questions in the literature has always
been about the scope and even the existence of meaning-
ful party identification change. Broadly speaking,
between 41 and 48 percent of respondents to the American
National Election Study panels, the inevitable source of
data in this debate, stay within the same partisan catego-
ries (Clarke and McCutcheon 2009). Fiorina (1981) inter-
preted these patterns as demonstrating that party
identification is quite unstable and, therefore, that the
party identification is a moving evaluation (see also
Allsop and Weisberg 1988; Jackson 1975; Jackson and
Kollman 2011).1
In contrast stand the studies summarized in Green,
Palmquist, and Schickler (2002) that, using nearly the
same data, conclude that party identification is a stable
identity. These studies argue that survey responses
involve a random component, which, left uncorrected,
upwardly biases estimates of partisan instability. For
instance, Green and Palmquist (1990) show that uncor-
rected wave-to-wave correlations for the 1980 ANES
(American National Election Study) panel range from
.85 to .89, which implies moderate partisan instability.
However, error-corrected correlations are .98, which

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