Politics

What’s Behind Republican and Democratic Party ID?

by Frank Newport

For Republicans, it’s the GOP’s conservative stances

PRINCETON, NJ -- One of the most important variables in understanding Americans' political attitudes is partisanship, or the political party with which one identifies. There is no more compelling example of this than the cross-tabulation of vote choice (in a hypothetical matchup between Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani) and party identification. Almost 9 in 10 of those who identified as Democrats in an early November Gallup Poll said they are going to vote for Clinton, while almost exactly the same percentage of those who identified as Republicans said they are going to vote for Giuliani. (Independents split down the middle.) This reflection of the key importance of partisanship is typical of all presidential elections for which Gallup has survey data.

Because of its importance as a predictor of political attitudes, the origins of political partisanship have been the subject of much study and debate among survey researchers and political scientists over the years. There is broad agreement that one's identification with a political party is because of one's upbringing, one's ethnicity or race, one's geographic location, and one's socioeconomic status.

In addition to these factors, Americans also align themselves with a party based on the party's basic ideology or specific issue positions.

To help gain a better understanding of all of these factors, a recent Gallup Panel survey asked Americans -- after they identified as Republicans or Democrats (or said they leaned to either party if they initially said they were independents) -- to explain in their own words just what it is about their chosen party that appeals to them most.

The Appeal of the Republican and Democratic Parties

Republicans appear to justify their allegiance to the GOP most often with a reference to the party's conservatism and conservative positions on moral issues. Beyond that, Republicans mention the party's conservative economic positions, its preference for smaller government, and -- in smaller numbers -- a variety of other considerations.

(Asked of Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party) What is it about the Republican Party that appeals to you most? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Oct 25-28

%

Conservative/More conservative (nonspecific)

26

Conservative family/moral values

15

Overall platform/philosophy/policies (nonspecific)

12

Conservative on fiscal/economic issues

10

Favors smaller government

8

Favors individual responsibility/self-reliance

5

Always been a Republican

4

For the people/working people

3

Low taxes

3

Favor strong military

3

Pro-life on abortion

2

More honest than the Democrats

2

Disagree with the Democrats

2

Other

3

Nothing in particular (vol.)

5

No opinion

6

(vol.) = Volunteered response

NOTE: Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

The pattern of rationales or justifications that Democrats use is somewhat different. Compared to the percentage of Republicans who mention conservatism as their rationale for identifying with the Republican Party, the percentage of Democrats who mention liberalism is relatively small.

Democrats are most likely to mention that the Democratic Party appeals to them personally because it is for the working class, the middle class, or the "common man." Democrats also tend to mention issues or party stances in general, and to a lesser extent mention specific issues such as the party's antiwar, pro-healthcare, and pro-environment stances.

(Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party) What is it about the Democratic Party that appeals to you most? [OPEN-ENDED]

2007 Oct 25-28

%

For the middle class/working class/common man

25

Social/Moral issue positions

18

Overall platform/philosophy/policies (nonspecific)

14

Liberal/More liberal (nonspecific)

11

Help the poor

7

Disagree with the Republicans

5

Always been a Democrat

5

Antiwar

3

Healthcare reform

2

Pro-environment/conservation

1

Other

7

Nothing in particular (vol.)

6

No opinion

5

(vol.) = Volunteered response

Percentages add to more than 100% due to multiple responses.

Ideological Groups Within the Parties

The vast majority of Americans -- more than 9 in 10 -- identify with or lean to one of the major parties. Both major political parties, then, constitute a relatively "big tent," comprising a number of subgroups that may have different reasons for identifying themselves with that party.

One important distinction among Republicans is between those who describe their views on political issues as "conservative" (about 76% of Republicans in this sample) and those who describe their views as either "moderate" or "liberal" (about 24%).

Among these two groups, the responses to the question about the appeal of the Republican Party are as follows.

(Asked of Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party) What is it about the Republican Party that appeals to you most? [OPEN-ENDED]

Conservative
Republicans

Moderate/
Liberal
Republicans

2007 Oct 25-28

%

%

Conservative/More conservative (nonspecific)

31

9

Conservative family/moral values

19

7

Overall platform/philosophy/policies (nonspecific)

12

14

Conservative on fiscal/economic issues

10

10

Favors smaller government

8

8

Favors individual responsibility/self-reliance

3

13

Always been a Republican

3

7

For the people/working people

3

4

Low taxes

3

3

Favor strong military

2

4

Pro-life on abortion

3

0

More honest than the Democrats

2

3

Disagree with the Democrats

2

2

Other

2

7

Nothing in particular (vol.)

5

7

Don't know

4

11

(vol.) = Volunteered response

The results show that the large group of Republicans who have identified themselves as conservatives are especially likely to say the GOP appeals to them precisely because it is conservative in general and, in particular, conservative on moral issues. There is little difference between the two groups in terms of mentioning the appeal of the GOP because of its conservative economic policies.

The smaller group of Republicans who identify themselves as moderates or liberals are more likely than conservative Republicans to say the appeal of the party lies with its focus on individual self-reliance. Importantly, the data show that moderate and liberal Republicans are also more likely to say they don't have a reason for liking the Republican Party, and in general are less likely to give any response to this question (which allowed up to three different answers from each respondent). This could suggest that moderates and liberals who identify with the Republican Party are -- in a broad sense -- less certain of why they are Republicans than are those who are conservative.

Democrats can be split in a slightly different fashion, between those who are conservative and moderate in their issue orientation (58% of Democrats in this sample) and those who are liberal (42%).

(Asked of Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party) What is it about the Democratic Party that appeals to you most? [OPEN-ENDED]

Conservative/
Moderate
Democrats

Liberal
Democrats

2007 Oct 25-28

%

%

For the middle class/working class/common man

24

28

Social/Moral issue positions

16

22

Overall platform/philosophy/policies (nonspecific)

16

12

Liberal/More liberal (nonspecific)

5

20

Help the poor

8

6

Disagree with the Republicans

5

6

Always been a Democrat

5

4

Antiwar

3

3

Healthcare reform

2

3

Pro-environment/conservation

1

1

Other

9

5

Nothing in particular (vol.)

7

4

Don't know/Refused

6

5

(vol.) = Volunteered response

As might be expected, liberal Democrats are more likely than conservative/moderate Democrats to mention that the appeal of the Democratic Party is that it is liberal. But otherwise there are not big distinctions in the explanations given, and both groups appear to give responses that are in roughly the same frequency, and to have similar "don't know" patterns.

Bottom Line

The appeal of the Republican and Democratic parties to those who identify with each is based first and foremost on broad views of each party's general ideology and orientation -- rather than on specific issues. Republicans more than anything else say they like the Republican Party because it is conservative; Democrats say they like the Democratic Party because it favors the common man, the middle class, and the working class.

The finding that the appeal of the Republican Party is built above all else on its conservatism would seem to leave moderate and liberal Republicans at least somewhat out in the cold. The data seem to confirm that. The latter group of Republicans is less likely than conservative Republicans to be able to give a reason for their party identification.

Survey Methods

Results for this panel study are based on telephone interviews with 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Oct. 25-28, 2007. Respondents were drawn from Gallup's household panel, which was originally recruited through random selection methods. The final sample is weighted so it is representative of U.S. adults nationwide. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 415 Republicans or Republican leaners, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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