A quick run-down of an important concept. Since party identification has been shown time and again to be the best predictor of an individual’s voting behaviour (Dalton and Wattenberg, 1993), any study of voter decision-making must take into account how and why individuals identify themselves with a political party. The models discussed here have been proposed to explain how and why an individual will consistently, and often against all evidence to the contrary, persist in voting for a particular party, usually over the course of their entire voting career.
The classic model (Lazarsfeld et al., 1944), posits the existence of social factors that influence party identification. This sociological model of party identification argued that voters vote along the social cleavages in society, and that party ID is shaped by one’s demographic. However, this theory had limited use in explaining social change as it emphasized continuity and stability (Dalton and Wattenberg, 1993).
The social psychological model (Campbell et al. 1960) argues that “the partisan choice the individual voter makes depends…on a field of psychological forces...[and] attitudes towards the perceived objects of national politics” (Campbell et al. 1960). This model sees party ID as a filter for voters, allowing them to not only make decisions but also to interpret events and information in a partisan manner.
Downs (1957) posits the economic or rational choice model. Here, voters evaluate candidates’ policies based on their own self-interest and select the party and candidate they believe will provide the greatest benefit to themselves. This also works retrospectively – voters may evaluate presidential candidates based on whether the utility they received in the last four years would have been greater or less with the opposite party in power.
Under the retrospective or rational choice model, Fiorina (1981) describes a party identification that is slowly updated according to events and information that is continually received by a voter. He accounts for this as a “running tally” of performance evaluations, which are totted up when it comes time to vote for or against an incumbent.
Green et al. (2002) outline a model where party ID is shaped by the social groups that a voter belongs to. The analogy of party ID to religious affiliation is particularly salient – both party ID and religious alignment are strong psychological bonds formed early in life that have some relation to ideological leaning but that are not impervious to new information, and can change as an individual ages and alters their social groupings.
This last model is by far the most convincing. It incorporates the feasible elements of the previous models – the psychological effects of Campbell (1960), the social effects of Lazarsfeld (1944), the information updating of Fiorina (1981) and the utilitarianism of Downs (1957) – without succumbing to the limited explanatory power that these models have. The analogy to religious affiliation is convincing in the paradoxical strength and flexibility of the voter-party bond. This model is the only one that accounts for the concept of voting for a candidate while still feeling and identifying with the opposite party.