After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:
- How do Americans affiliate with a political party?
- What are partisan coalitions?
- What happens during a partisan realignment or dealignment?
People who identify with a political party either declare their allegiance by joining the party or show their support through regular party-line voting at the polls. People can easily switch their party affiliation or distance themselves from parties entirely. However, people who do not declare a partisan affiliation when they register to vote lose the opportunity to participate in primary election campaigns in many states.
A person’s partisan identification is defined as a long-term attachment to a particular party (Campbell et al., 1960). Americans are not required to formally join party organizations as is the case in other democracies. Instead people self-identify as Republicans, Democrats, or members of minor parties. They also can declare themselves independent and not aligned with any political party (Green, Palmquist, & Schickler, 2002).
Since the 1960s there has been a gradual decline in identification with political parties and a rise in the number of independents. In 2000, more people identified as independents (40 percent of the voting population) than affiliated with either the Democratic (34 percent) or Republican (24 percent) parties for the first time in history. The proportion of people registering as independents increased 57 percent between 1990 and 1998, while those registering as Democrats declined by 14 percent and as Republicans by 5 percent. In 2011, 31 percent of the population identified as Democrats, 29 percent as Republican, and 38 percent as independents (Jones, 2011).
Trends in Party Identification
Trends in party identification from 1932 to the present have been compiled by the Pew Research Center in this graph found at http://www.people-press.org/2016/09/13/party-identification-trends-1992-2016/.
As voter identification with political parties has declined, so has dedication to the two-party system. According to a national survey, citizens have more trust in product brands, such as Nike, Levis, Honda, and Clorox, than in the Democrats and Republicans (Lauro, 2000). Since the 1980s, Americans have become skeptical about the two major parties’ ability to represent the public interest and to handle major issues facing the country, such as crime, the environment, and saving Social Security. At the same time, support for third parties, like the Tea Party, has increased over the last decade (Owen & Dennis). Still, the two-party system continues to dominate the political process as a viable multiparty alternative has not emerged.
Party coalitions consist of groups that have long-term allegiances to a particular political party. Regions of the country establish loyalties to a specific party as a result of the party’s handling of a war, a major social problem, or an economic crisis. Social, economic, ethnic, and racial groups also become aligned with particular parties. Catholics and labor union members in the Northeast form a part of the Democratic coalition. White fundamentalist Protestants are a component of the Republican coalition (Beck, 2003). Parties count on coalition members to vote for them consistently in elections.
A major, enduring shift in coalition loyalties that results in a change in the balance of power between the two major parties is called a realignment (Key Jr.). Realignments can be sparked by critical elections, where a minority party wins and becomes the majority party in government following an election, and remains dominant for an extended period of time. American parties realign about once every thirty or forty years. A critical election in 1932 brought the Democrats and President Franklin Roosevelt to power after a period of Republican domination dating from the 1890s. This New Deal coalition was based on an alliance of white Southerners and liberal Northerners who benefited from the social welfare policies of the Democratic administration during the Great Depression. The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 marked the beginning of a realignment favoring the Republicans. In this coalition, white Southerners moved away from the Democratic Party as they favored the more conservative values espoused by the Republicans (Burnham, 1996).
Partisan dealignment occurs when party loyalty declines and voters base their decisions on short-term, election-specific factors, such as the leadership qualities of a candidate (Burnham, 1970). The inclination of people to identify as independents rather than as partisans is evidence that a dealignment is occurring (Beck, 2003). A partisan dealignment may be occurring today, as more people are identifying as independents and more voters select their candidates on the basis of personal traits, such as honesty. Mass media can contribute to partisan realignment by focusing attention on candidates’ personalities and scandals, which are short-term factors that can influence vote choice.
People indicate their identification with a political party either by declaring their allegiance to a particular party or by regularly supporting that party at the polls. Societal groups that gravitate toward particular political parties can form partisan coalitions. These coalitions can shift during critical elections, which result in a minority party becoming the majority party in government.
- Do you consider yourself either a Republican or a Democrat? What makes you identify with one party rather than the other?
- Why do parties go through realignment? How does realignment allow parties to adapt to a changing electorate?
Beck, P. A., “A Tale of Two Electorates: The Changing American Party Coalitions, 1952–2000,” in The State of the Parties, 4th ed., ed. John C. Green and Rick Farmer (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 38–53.
Burnham, W. D., Critical Elections and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: Norton, 1970).
Burnham, W. D., “Realignment Lives: The 1994 Earthquake and Its Implications,” in The Clinton Presidency: First Appraisals, ed. Colin Campbell and Bert A. Rockman (Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1996), 363–95.
Campbell, A., Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes, The American Voter (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1960).
Green, D., Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler, Partisan Hearts and Minds (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002).
Jones, J. M., “Democratic Party ID Drops in 2010, Tying 22-Year Low,” Gallup, January 5, 2011, accessed March 26, 2011, http://www.gallup.com/poll/145463/democratic-party-drops-2010-tying-year-low.aspx.
Key Jr., V. O., “A Theory of Critical Elections,” Journal of Politics 21: 198–210.
Lauro, P. W., “According to a Survey, the Democratic and Republican Parties Have Brand-Name Problems,” New York Times, November 17, 2000.
Owen, D. and Jack Dennis, “Antipartyism in the USA and Support for Ross Perot,” European Journal of Political Research 29: 383–400.