Who Views Their Partisan Affiliation as Important to Their Identity?
In recent years, there has been an outpouring of popular writing on how one’s party affiliation is increasingly part of one’s core identity. Emblematic of this account is the increasingly popular maxim that “party is the new religion.” Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, for example, wrote that “politics has become a religion in so many lives.” Just this month, Shadi Hamid — a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute — penned an article entitled “How Politics Replaced Religion in America.” According to this school of thought, the rise in the importance of one’s party affiliation is attributable to the decline in church attendance. Yet, to date, there have been no data-driven analyses on who views their party as important to their identity.
Drawing on data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) 2020 Pre-Election Data, we seek to fill this gap. The ANES survey was conducted between August and November 2020 with a mixed-mode design that included self-administered surveys, phone interviews, and video interviews. The study includes interviews with 8,280 respondents and post-stratification weights were applied to ensure the sample is nationally representative. In addition to various demographic questions such as party and race, respondents were asked, “How important is being [a Democrat/a Republican/an Independent] to your identity?” Approximately 13% said it is extremely important, 22% said very important, 27% said moderately important, 16% said a little important, and 23% said not at all important.
To focus on those who view their party affiliation as quite important, we construct a binary variable for the importance of one’s party affiliation. We coded those who said their party affiliation is “very” or “extremely” important as 1, and those who said “moderately,” “a little,” or “not at all” important as 0. Strong and weak Republicans (Democrats) are coded as Republicans (Democrats), and Independents — even those who lean Republican (Democrat) — are coded as Independents since these individuals were asked about their identity as an Independent rather than as a partisan. We exclude those who answered “don’t know” or refused to answer questions on their party affiliation and its importance to their identity.
Overall, 35% of respondents view their party affiliation as important to their identity. When analyzed by party, we found no statistically significant difference between Democrats, Republicans, and Independents; 36% of Democrats, 34% of Republicans, and 35% of Independents view their party affiliation as important to their identity. Perhaps surprisingly, Independents are just as likely to say that being an Independent is important to their identity as Democrats and Republicans are to say the same about their chosen party.
First, to test the validity of the argument that politics is replacing religion, we analyze our results by frequency of church attendance. We find that people who attend church every week are actually the most likely to view party affiliation as important to their identity. Among this group of frequent church-goers, 44% viewed their party affiliation as integral to their identity. This percentage decreased by 10 points among people who attend church “almost every week”, “once or twice a month”, and “a few times a year”. Party’s importance to identity was the lowest (31%) among people who reportedly never attend church. Given that the most religious are also the most likely to rate their party identity as being important, our findings suggest that politics is not replacing religion, contrary to common belief.
We expand our analysis by, next, breaking down our results by party affiliation and age. Though we found Democrats, Republicans, and Independents are just as likely to view their party affiliation as important to their identity, it is possible that partisans may view it as important at different points in their lives. That is, Democrats may be more likely to view their party affiliation as important when they are younger, and Republicans are more likely to view it as important when they are older. As depicted in the graph below, we find somewhat varied results across the three parties. The importance of party affiliation among Democrats steadily increases across the age distribution. In contrast, the percentage of Republicans who view their party affiliation as integral to their identity decreases from ages 18 to 40, but then increases steadily with age after age 40. Notably, the percentage of Republicans who view their party important to their identity is lower during these years than for Democrats. Independents follow an inverse distribution. The percentage of Independents who view their Independent identity as important increases with age until age 60. In subsequent ages, the proportion of Independents who view it as important decreases. These results suggest that, although a similar overall percentage of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents view their party affiliation as important to their identity, the importance of party affiliation fluctuates differently across the age distribution for each party.
However, we hypothesized that the importance of party affiliation to identity may differ among self-reported strong and weak partisans. To test this, we analyze our data by self-reported strength of party identification. Notably, incredibly stark differences persist between “strong” and “not very strong” members of each political party. 51% of strong Democrats view their party affiliation as being important to their identity, compared to only 4% of not very strong Democrats. These distinct differences also persist among Republicans, with a 49% to 4% contrast between strong and not very strong Republicans, respectively. Though these differences are striking, they are rather unsurprising. Given the very nature of people identifying as “not very strong” members of the Democratic and Republican parties, it is understandable that these people would not view their party affiliation as important to their personal identity.
Further, we find very little difference between self-reported true Independents and those who identify as Independent-Democrats or Independent-Republicans. 36% of both Independents and Independent-Republicans view their party affiliation as crucial to their identity, closely followed by 33% of Independent-Democrats. These findings are notable and somewhat surprising, as we find that Independent leaners are just as attached to their Independent identities as true Independents.
Next, to test the hypothesis that liberal Americans have stronger connections to their partisan identities, we break down our data by ideology. Similar to the earlier findings of Democrats and Republicans, 36% of both liberals and conservatives view their partisan affiliation as integral to their identity. A smaller percentage (27%) of moderates, unsurprisingly, reported their partisan affiliation being a core part of their identity. This difference is statistically significant (p<.01).
However, these findings do not offer insights into the differing strengths of partisan identity among liberal, moderate, and conservative members of each party. For example, do conservative Republicans have a stronger connection to their GOP identity, when compared to moderate Republicans? To understand this, we break down our findings by party and self-reported ideology.
Among Republicans, self-identifying liberals and conservatives were equally likely to regard their Republican Party membership as vital to their identity. 37% of both liberal and conservative Republicans report having a strong sense of identity with the GOP. This is a stark contrast from the mere 15% of moderate Republicans who felt the same — a 22 point difference between moderates and both liberals and conservatives.
These results are rather striking. Most notable is the lack of difference between liberal and conservative Republicans. One could argue that tensions between liberal Republicans and the GOP have heightened significantly in recent years; Most recently in regards to President Trump’s second impeachment trial. Liberal Republicans in Congress, such as Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, faced censures from their state Republican Parties following their votes to convict the President. In fact, the Alaska GOP not only censured Murkowski, but pledged to enlist and support another candidate against the liberal Republican in the 2022 GOP Senate Primary. Moderate Republican Senator Mitt Romney faced similar repercussions from the Utah GOP, though the vote to formally censure failed. Thus, one could anticipate that liberal Republicans would feel minimal connection between their GOP membership and their personal identity. Our results, however, display the contrary. Instead, what our results might indicate is that liberals who affiliate with the Republican Party despite the disconnect between their ideology and their partisanship likely do so because their Republican identity is so strong. It is likely this strength of identity that keeps them in the party despite the misalignment on ideology.
However, it is also worth noting that our findings may be influenced by the smaller sample sizes in the moderate and liberal Republican groupings. (Only 83 people identify as liberal Republicans; 319 identify as moderate Republicans; 1,872 identify as conservative Republicans).
Equally as striking are the ideological breakdown of Democrats who view their partisan affiliations as important to their identity. More than 40% of conservative Democrats and 38% of liberal Democrats view their partisan affiliation as important to their identity, compared to just 27% of Democrats. Once again, these findings are constrained by the small subsamples. Though 1,564 Democrats identified as liberal and 609 identified as moderate, only 171 identified as conservative. Nevertheless, this graph also provides evidence for the notion that people who identify as Democrats despite the lack of ideological fit likely do so out of a strong sense of identity with the party.
Our findings contribute to the growing but still-nascent field examining the importance of one’s
party affiliation to their identity. More broadly, our findings open the door for further research. Why are liberal and conservative Democrats (Republicans) more likely to view their party as important to their personal identity than moderate Democrats (Republicans)? How does the importance of one’s party compare to other features of one’s identity, such as religion? We hope others pick up where we’ve left off.