Which Party Represents My Group? The Group Foundations of Partisan Choice and Polarization

Abstract

While groups have been central to thinking about partisan identity and choices, there has been surprisingly little attention paid to the role of perceptions of the group composition of the parties. We explore this critical linking information in the context of religious groups, some of the chief pivots around which the parties have been sorting. Using three national samples, we show that perceptions of the religious group composition of the parties are often biased—evangelicals overestimate the presence of evangelicals within the Republican Party and the irreligious within the Democratic Party. The key finding is that individuals are far more likely to identify with the party in which they believe their group is well represented—a finding which clarifies the role of party image shifts in constructing partisanship, the limits of the culture war motif, and the importance of social perception in shaping beliefs about party representation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, Doherty et al. (2018) document religious majorities in both parties.

  2. 2.

    The phrase “God gap” was coined by journalists and is used by journalists and academics to describe the religious division in American politics (Black 2016, p. 130). For the Christian Right’s transition to minority politics, see Lewis (2017).

  3. 3.

    Our survey measures of perceptions about the religious composition of the parties are similar to those fielded by Ahler and Sood (2018), though the projects developed independently and more or less contemporaneously.

  4. 4.

    See Chapter 7 where religious group memberships are discussed in conjunction with changes in partisanship as groups respond to social forces and see Chapter 12, which assesses the independent effects of group membership, but also discusses group membership as a determinant of party identification, e.g. Campbell et al. (1960, p. 328).

  5. 5.

    More narrowly, The American Voter focuses on longitudinal variation in partisanship for groups and also on variation across groups in partisanship. Our approach extends this work into a new aspect of partisan variation—within groups at one point in time. Our approach anticipates variation among members of a group with differing perceptions regarding how well their group is represented in each party. On one hand, we anticipate these perceptions are connected to the social forces examined in The American Voter and longitudinal variation in each party’s group-based composition. On the other hand, our work also reveals that it is important to measure individuals’ beliefs about the composition of the parties because their beliefs vary widely around more objective assessments of the actual composition of the parties.

  6. 6.

    Please see the Online Appendix Table A0 for the demographics of the samples. The model results are nearly identical with and without weights applied.

  7. 7.

    For religious identification, we focus on white Evangelical Christians and religious nones. We categorize evangelicals using the self-identification approach, where Protestants or other Christians affirm a “born again or evangelical” identity. Born-again Catholics are excluded. While affiliation with evangelical denominations is often preferred (Steensland et al. 2000; Shelton 2018), analyses suggest that the self-identification approach produces similar results (Lewis and de Bernardo 2010; Burge and Lewis 2018; Smith et al. 2018). We categorize religious nones as people who claim their present religion to be atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.

  8. 8.

    Similarly, Valentino and Khirkov (2017) reported that over half of the respondents in their sample associated evangelical Christians with the Republican Party, while 37.8% of their respondents associated seculars with the Democratic Party.

  9. 9.

    The American Voter considers several groups that are either clearly “joined” prior to party identification (e.g. race) or that form independent of party (e.g. unions and religious groups). They write, “[T]hese groups stand at one remove from the political order. Their reason for existence is not expressly political” (Campbell et al. 1960, p. 295).

  10. 10.

    We also note that we wouldn’t even expect a general sample effect for the unfolded measure of partisanship because, as shown above, individuals use perceptions as both positive and negative cues (which would cancel out in a general sample, but should work in similar ways among members of a particular group such as evangelicals).

  11. 11.

    Ahler and Sood conclude that PCOPs “are genuine and party specific, not artifacts of expressive responding, innumeracy, or ignorance of base rates” (2018, p. 964).

  12. 12.

    The statement was effectively randomized along the lines of gender, age, education, and race (white vs non-white). Still, since the p values were not equal to 1 (they ranged from .53 to .84), we included these demographic variables as controls in OLS models that underlie the results in Fig. 6.

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Claassen, R.L., Djupe, P.A., Lewis, A.R. et al. Which Party Represents My Group? The Group Foundations of Partisan Choice and Polarization. Polit Behav (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09565-6

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Keywords

  • Culture war
  • Evangelicals
  • Secular
  • God gap
  • Polarization
  • Representation
  • Group identity
  • Party identification
  • Party composition