What’s the relationship between party identification and issue positions? Many assume that a voter’s positions determine their party. It ain’t necessarily so.
Indeed, in some instances, the reverse is true: People’s partisanship can determine their issue positions. When they identify with a party and know which party is on what side of an issue, partisanship can count more than policy.
An experiment we conducted with our colleagues at North Star Research in a poll for USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center illustrates the point (though I alone am responsible for any errors in interpretation here).
We presented respondents with two different education plans, the details of which are unimportant in this context. What is important is that half the sample was told A was the Democratic plan and B was the Republican plan, while the other half of our national sample was told A was the Republican plan and B was the Democrats’ approach.
The questions dealt with substantive policy on a subject quite important to most Americans — education — and issues that people are familiar with — class size, teacher pay and the like.
Nonetheless, when the specifics in Plan A were presented as the Democratic plan and B as the Republican plan, Democrats preferred A by 75 percent to 17 percent, and Republicans favored B by 13 percent to 78 percent. When the exact same elements of A were presented in the exact same words, but as the Republicans’ plan, and with B as the Democrats’ plan, Democrats preferred B by 80 percent to 12 percent, while Republicans preferred “their party’s plan” by 70 percent to 10 percent. Independents split fairly evenly both times. In short, support for an identical education plan shifted by more than 60 points among partisans, depending on which party was said to back it.
Thus, policy positions were not driving partisanship, but rather partisanship was driving policy positions. Voters took whichever position was ascribed to their party, irrespective of the specific polices that position entailed.
Other experiments elicit similar results. A study by Yale psychologist Geoffrey Cohen found that, absent partisan information, liberal students favored a welfare plan that was more generous than any existing policy, while conservatives favored a plan more stringent than any in existence. However, when told the stringent policy was the “Democratic plan,” liberals favored it and conservatives opposed it. When told the generous policy was the Republican approach, conservatives favored it and liberals opposed it. Again, partisanship is driving policy preference.
We have witnessed this mechanism in real life as well. After President Obama announced he favored allowing gay marriage, many thought he might lose support among African-Americans, who had opposed the policy. Instead, support for same sex marriage shot up by 18 points among African-Americans in an ABC/Washington Post poll, while a PPP poll found an 11-point increase in support among African-Americans in North Carolina in the wake of the president’s announcement. It’s more evidence that voters were following their party leader on the issue, rather than letting their attitudes on the issue determine their views of the leader.
Of course, it’s not necessarily the case for all issues or all voters. There are undoubtedly circumstances in which taking a particular stand might lead to voters abandoning the party rather than the policy. But the evidence suggests that parties have considerable latitude to alter their positions without losing voters. At the same time, parties can contribute to the level of political polarization, driving voters further apart on the issues if they so choose, and bringing them closer together if they want.
In that sense, voters could be right in assigning blame for polarization to partisan machinations rather than to their own views.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.