Polls and elections: party identification in the 2012 presidential election.

Author:Winneg, Kenneth M.


Although party affiliation's role in individual political behavior in the United States has been studied since the 1940s (Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee 1954; Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet 1944), it became a central focus in the Michigan studies of the 1950s and 1960s (Belknap and Campbell 1951; Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes 1960). Indeed, as Nie, Verba, and Petrocik (1979, 47) noted, in the 1950s and 1960s, party affiliation "was the central thread running through interpretations of American politics" where it was considered "a stable characteristic of the individual: it was likely to be inherited, it was likely to remain steady throughout the citizen's political life, and it was likely to grow in strength during that lifetime."

Party identification is important in part because of its power to predict the presidential vote choice (Barrels 2000). Analyzing data from the American National Election Survey (ANES) from 1952 through 2004, Bafumi and Shapiro (2009) showed that party identification achieved its highest predictive value in 1996 and 2004. Consistent with that analysis, the 2012 National Exit Poll revealed that more than nine in 10 self-identified Republicans (93%) reported casting their ballots for their party nominee, and a nearly equal proportion (92%) of self-styled Democrats sided with the Democratic incumbent president Barack Obama (Cable News Network [CNN] 2012). Indeed strong party attachment predicts straight ticket voting (Schaffner, Streb, and Wright 2001).

The drop in the number of citizens reporting a strong tie to party, a decline that occurred between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s and leveled off in the late-1970s and early-1980s, did not change the fact that most continued to identify with a party (Miller and Shanks 1996). But changes in partisan affiliation did focus scholars on its variability from one election to another with some attributing the differences to simple survey measurement error (Green and Palmquist,1990, 1994; Johnston 2006), and others arguing that party identification can be affected in the short run by events (Franklin and Jackson 1983; Markus and Converse 1979).

Using the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania's (APPC) National Annenberg Election Survey's (NAES) rolling cross-section data, we tracked the root party identification (whether respondent identifies as a Democrat, a Republican, or an Independent) in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 elections. In 2000, Johnston, Hagen, and Jamieson found,

as forces favored Al Gore, the intensity of identification strengthened among Democrats and weakened among Republicans, and the Democrats share among Independent "leaners" grew and Republican share shrank. The opposite happened when forces favored Bush. At the end of the campaign, identification with each party intensified. (2004, 42-43n.9) In subsequent years (Winneg and Jamieson 2005, 2010), we also noted some variability during the course of the general election campaign and greater stability in the weeks leading to the elections. In 2004, the gap between self-identified party affiliation narrowed, but in 2008 the tracking indicated a net Democratic advantage, a finding that also showed up in the exit polls (CNN 2008). In this article, we analyze the extent of variability in self-identified party affiliation in the 2012 U.S. presidential general election campaign. We then compare the aggregate 2012 self-identified party affiliation with the prior three U.S. presidential general elections--2008, 2004, and 2000.

Research Questions and Methodology

To track campaign knowledge and learning during the final two months of the presidential campaign, the 2012 APPC Institutions of Democracy (IOD) project conducted a six-wave telephone panel survey that contained both discrete cross-section samples and multiple wave panels. In each wave, party affiliation was collected via self-report. This article utilizes the cross-sectional data from this study to compare the first four waves of discrete cross-section samples to prior election years' comparable dates. We use these data to examine the extent of variability of self-identified party affiliation during the latter stages of the campaign. Looking first at 2012, we address the following question:

RQ1: Were there aggregate shifts in self-identified party affiliation during the final two months of the campaign and immediately following the 2012 election?

Since nearly all the media and dollars campaigns spend are aimed at the battleground states, these audiences receive more targeted appeals, voter contact, and local news coverage. Those living outside those states do not receive the same level of campaign information either from the campaigns or through the local news media. Therefore, in this research we ask the following:

RQ2: Were shifts in self-identified party affiliation similar or different in battleground and nonbattleground states in 2012?

In 2008, 2004, and 2000 our research tracked change over time using the rolling-cross-sectional data across the entire campaign. Given the constraints of the 2012 data set, and the unanswered question of the extent of shifting in self-identified party affiliation during the final months of the campaign, we ask the following:

RQ3: How different or similar are the aggregate shifts in self-identified party identification during comparable periods leading up to the election in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012?

While in the past, we restricted our analysis to the root question, in this article we extend our analysis to the "leaners" in order to better understand the direction in which they are heading, especially in light of the increase in their numbers noted in prior research (Pew 2009).

RQ4: In what direction do "leaners," those "Independents" who say they lean toward one party or the other, trend over time?

Our research builds upon the work we did in analyzing party identification in the presidential election from 2000 through 2008 but goes beyond the extant research by examining shifts in the final weeks of the campaign. The data are from the APPC's IOD 2012 Political Knowledge Survey, a six-wave national cross-sectional telephone survey of U.S. adults, 18 years or older, and comparable numbers of U.S. adults drawn from cross-sections from similar dates drawn in the 2000, 2004, and 2008 NAES. In this article, we include only the first five waves of the 2012 study and the first four waves when comparing to prior years' elections. The five-wave sample includes a postelection cross-section, and the four wave sample includes interviewing which ended about a week before Election Day. Wave 6 was conducted much later, in December.

In 2012, under contract to APPC, Social Science...

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