Rallying Around the Party Symbol: Party Identity Strength and Temporary Candidate Evaluation Polarization

57 Pages Posted: 1 Aug 2011 Last revised: 16 Aug 2012

Date Written: 2011

Abstract

This paper argues that party identification, as a social identity, fundamentally alters and biases individual processing of and reactions to political information and events. Central to my theory is the assumption that party identities link peoples' mental representation of a political party with their mental representations of themselves. From this theory, I derive the hypothesis that as identification with political figures increases, evaluations become more biased and polarized.

Using pooled time series from the American National Election Studies (ANES), I examine the thermometer ratings over several years of six political figures: Ronald Reagan, Robert Dole, John McCain, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Walter Mondale. I find the evaluations of these figures are significantly more polarized in years when their connection with political parties, and as an extension, those with stronger social identities based on partisanship (partisan identifiers), increased as a result of being nominated for president candidate or serving as the elected president. Furthermore, this polarization of evaluations is greater among individuals who report strong partisan identification even when controlling for ideological extremity or political interest.

This same temporary polarization produced by increased identification is again found in an analysis Barack Obama and John McCain evaluations found in the 2008-2009 ANES Panel Study. Strong partisans' comparative evaluations of Obama and McCain become significantly more polarized as the candidates become party symbols as a result of their formal nominations. Yet, while the polarization persists for Obama evaluations, McCain evaluations become less polarized after the election when his connection to the party was severed by his loss of the election.

Keywords: party identification, candidate evaluations, polarization, social identity, identity strength

Suggested Citation

Freeze, Melanie, Rallying Around the Party Symbol: Party Identity Strength and Temporary Candidate Evaluation Polarization (2011). APSA 2011 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1902386

Melanie Freeze (Contact Author)

Duke University ( email )

100 Fuqua Drive
Durham, NC 27708-0204
United States

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