The partisan marriage gap is bigger than ever
Marriage has always been a marker of both social solidarity and division in America. Marriages between people of different races were once prohibited but are now on the rise — one indication of growing solidarity across racial lines in America. Tolerance toward interfaith marriages has also grown over time, and Americans are now more likely to marry a spouse of a different religion. But the same cannot be said for politics.
Marriages across party lines appear to be falling. In 2016, when Eitan Hersh and Yair Ghitza counted married couples among registered voters, they found that 30 percent of couples were politically mixed, meaning they did not share a party identification. Most of these marriages were between partisans and independents, and 9 percent of all marriages were between Democrats and Republicans. Today, only 21 percent of marriages are politically mixed, and nearly 4 percent are between Democrats and Republicans, according to my analysis of the new American Family Survey.
This is a sizable decline in just four years, albeit the two results cannot be directly compared. Hersh and Ghitza’s finding was based on a database of voter registration records. They focused on voters in 30 states and did not have direct data to define married couples. In contrast, the American Family Survey was based on a national sample of 3,000 American adults, and I looked at married adults and compared respondents’ party identification with their spouses’.
It is possible to make a direct comparison between 2020 and 2017, the earliest year when the spouse’s party affiliation was available in the American Family Survey. My analysis suggests that in just three years, the share of politically mixed marriages in the U.S. has declined from 23 percent to 21 percent, and the share of marriages between a Democrat and a Republican dropped from 4.5 percent to 3.6 percent. So, both sources suggest that politically mixed marriages have been trending down, at least in recent years.
Trends going back to earlier years are not available, but other sources indicate that we have become less tolerant toward inter-political marriages. When Gallup asked in 1958, “If you had a daughter of marriageable age, would you prefer she marry a Democrat or Republican, all other things being equal?” 18 percent of Americans said they would prefer their daughter to marry a Democrat, 10 percent preferred a Republican and the majority didn’t care. But in 2016, 28 percent of respondents said they preferred their child to marry a Democrat and 27 percent a Republican, and the share who didn’t care had shrunk significantly.
Looking further at the pattern of inter-political marriages by demographics such as education and age, we see that college-educated adults are slightly more likely than those without a college degree to marry across party lines (23 percent versus 20 percent), and adults ages 65 and older are slightly less likely to be in politically-mixed marriages than those who are under 35 (20 percent versus 23 percent).
A somewhat clearer pattern emerges when looking at the party ID of the respondents. Democrats are slightly more likely to marry someone who does not share their party ID than are Republicans (16 percent versus 12 percent), and independents (32 percent) are most likely to be in a politically mixed marriage.
Finally, what really separates couples is how big a role politics plays in their overall identity. Among married adults who say that their political party is either “extremely” or “very” important to their overall identity (36 percent of all married adults), only 14 percent has a spouse who does not share their political belief. In contrast, the share of inter-political marriages doubles among adults who believe their political identity is not important (39 percent of married adults).
Just like couples in interracial or interfaith relationships, politically mixed couples face unique challenges, especially during an election year. In 2017, after Donald Trump won the election, one in 10 Americans reported ending a romantic relationship because of differing political views. And one in five Americans knew a couple whose marriage or relationship was negatively affected by Trump’s election, according to a poll by Wakefield Research.
In a comparison of family life satisfaction among couples of various political affiliations, politically mixed couples do seem to be less happy. Less than half (47 percent) of these couples say they are completely satisfied with their family life, compared with 61 percent of couples in which both spouses are Republicans and 55 percent where both are Democrats.
Before we jump to the conclusion that marriages between Democrats and Republicans just won’t work, it is important to note that the Democrat-Republican couples are not the unhappiest: Fifty-eight percent say they are completely satisfied with their family life, which is slightly higher than the shares among couples who are both Democrats or both independents (55 percent). At the same time, 14 percent Democrat-Republican couples also say they are (at least) somewhat dissatisfied with their family life, which is the highest among all couples. Couples consisting of a Democrat and an independent seem to be the least happy: Only 35 percent say they are completely satisfied with their family life.
If interracial marriages are a barometer for racial relations in the U.S., inter-political marriages reflect how polarized we are today. Even though the 2016 election and the current election season appear to be pushing the two parties further apart, the polarization in the U.S. goes back a long way. In 2014, during the Obama presidency, a Pew Research Center poll found that the level of partisan antipathy had surged since 1994, and Democrats and Republicans were more divided than at any point in the past two decades.
The decline of inter-political marriages is yet another telling and worrisome sign that political polarization is deepening in America.
Wendy Wang, Ph.D., is director of research for the Institute for Family Studies.
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