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Randomizing Partisanship

- February 5, 2009

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bq. Partisanship is strongly correlated with attitudes and behavior, but it is unclear from this pattern whether partisanship has a causal effect on political behavior and attitudes. We report the results of a field experiment designed to investigate the causal effect of party identification. Prior to the February 2008 Connecticut presidential primary, researchers sent a mailing to a random sample of unaffiliated registered voters who, in a pre-treatment survey, leaned toward a political party. The mailing informed the subjects that only voters registered with a party were able to participate in the upcoming presidential primary. Subjects were surveyed again in June 2008. Comparing post-treatment survey responses to subjects’ baseline survey responses, we find that those informed of the need to register with a party were more likely to affiliate with a party and subsequently showed stronger partisanship. Further, we find that the treatment group also demonstrated greater concordance than the control group between their pretreatment latent partisanship and their post-treatment reported voting behavior and intentions and evaluations of partisan figures. Thus our treatment, which caused a strengthening of partisan identity, also caused a shift in subjects’ candidate preferences and evaluations of salient political figures. This finding is consistent with the claim that partisanship is an active force changing how citizens behave in and perceive the political world.

That is from a new paper by Alan Gerber, Greg Huber, and Ebonya Washington.

Your reaction to these results will likely depend on your prior beliefs about party identification. I’ve always believed that it is a real force, not something that shifts in response to fervor for a particular candidate, for example.[1]

So, when I saw Greg present this paper recently, I put on my Curmudgeon’s Cap and asked, “What’s new here?” He kindly responded and noted two things. One, of course, is the value of a randomized experiment, particularly when a substantive arena lacks strong evidence of causation. A second is how this kind of design could be used to investigate further the nature of party identification. I’ve always been persuaded that it is a meaningful social identity, but we know much less about how that identity is created and nurtured. Greg noted that one could draw on this research design investigate the role of social networks, for example. The avenues for future research seem promising.

The paper is here. The “political party steak brands” are here. (Only $29.99!)

fn1. This notion — of party identification as social identity — seems to resonate with my students as well. I ask them to imagine that they have had two really good dates with an attractive person, followed by a third date in which they have learned that this person identifies with the opposite party. Then I act out the pain that this causes (“What? How could this be!”), the discussion where you try to persuade them to change their mind, the inevitable argument that follows, and the unfortunate demise of what once seemed such a promising relationship. (Am I drawing on my own life experiences? Hmm…) They seem to get it.

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