The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

More Americans than usual have been changing parties. Why?

Here’s what our research found

The White House on July 4, 2020. (Photo by Oliver Contreras for The Washington Post)

As we head into 2022, expect a deluge of predictions about the upcoming U.S. midterm elections. Will Democrats maintain, widen or lose their slight advantage in the Senate? Will there be a “red wave” overtaking the House? We’ll hear about voter turnout, the impact of independent and third-party candidates, and gerrymandering.

What we won’t hear much about is Republicans becoming Democrats or Democrats becoming Republicans. In fact, political tactics like gerrymandering largely assume that people don’t switch parties. But that’s wrong. As we show, party identities are more fluid than most people assume — especially during periods of high political turbulence, like ours.

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How entrenched are ordinary American citizens in their views?

Many observers of U.S. politics talk about contemporary “polarization.” The word suggests two camps of people firmly entrenched in their views, growing further and further apart on issues, and increasingly disliking each other, implying that we are a nation divided.

This narrative leads people to assume that party identities are strong and stable, that Republicans stay Republican and that Democrats stay Democrats. But is that the case?

How we did our research

It can be hard to track party switching. Surveys may ask the same questions over time, but they tend to ask them of different people. It often looks like the percentage of people who are Republican, Democratic and independent remains fairly steady over time, making those identities seem stable. But researchers don’t know whether that’s because people aren’t switching or because they are — just in a way that leads to a generally similar distribution of Republicans, Democrats and independents from year to year.

To better understand this, we took advantage of new General Social Survey panel data, which tracks the same people over time. The General Social Survey is a nationally representative survey of American adults, conducted since 1972 out of the National Opinions Research Center at the University of Chicago. The survey monitors trends in attitudes, opinions and behaviors and is often considered the gold standard in the social sciences. In a new study, we considered whether the particular individuals that the GSS interviewed in 2016 had different party identities in 2020.

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Partisan switching was not uncommon. Why?

We found that 70 percent of partisans — Democrats and Republicans alike — kept the same political identifications between 2016 and 2020. But that leaves a significant minority who did not. About 10 percent of Democrats and Republicans switched to the other party. An additional 15 percent of both Democrats and Republicans in 2016 identified as independents by 2020. The most volatile group was independents: Over 50 percent of independents in 2016 identified with either the Democratic or Republican party in 2020.

Partisans switching camps is not new. In fact, partisan sorting — people sorting into parties whose political philosophy is closer to their own — is widely pointed to as the reason the United States is currently so divided. But historically, sorting takes place over long periods of time. In any given span of a few years, we would not expect much partisan switching. For instance, there was markedly more party switching between 2016 and 2020 than the General Social Survey panel found between 2008 and 2012.

It’s not surprising to see the most volatility among political independents, the group whom political leaders focus on swaying with their rhetoric. But why did people who did identify with a party change so much so quickly — especially during an era marked by political division?

Scholars have suggested that backlash to the election of President Barack Obama and the ensuing heated political discussions about identity issues like race, immigration and religion may have fueled party realignments during the latter years of his presidency. In other words, people who felt only weakly connected to “their” party may have shifted to the party more closely aligned on those identity grounds.

Since 2016, tensions over identity issues have only escalated, with the Trump administration’s explicit anti-immigration rhetoric, national fights over religious freedom and vocal and visible racial justice movements. It’s possible that the political turbulence of the past several years accelerated partisan realignments that began during the Obama presidency. If that’s the case, periods of heightened political volatility may especially influence people’s political identities and can prompt sudden partisan realignments.

What does recent party switching mean for the 2022 midterms and beyond?

Recent and sudden party realignments suggest that Americans are increasingly aligning with the party they’re closest to on today’s top issues, leading to two parties that are more cleanly divided than ever. If identity issues are indeed driving recent party switching, expect political leaders to lean on these issues heavily from now through the 2022 midterms. Republicans have already hinted at this strategy with efforts to ban “critical race theory” in schools, a term that has become a catchall for anything related to the examination of systemic racism and a dog whistle for issues of race more broadly.

Looking forward, the findings suggest that if parties change course and new sets of issues become flash points, current party allegiances could change, and quickly.

It’s hard to imagine that the parties will drastically change their strategies soon, however; Republicans in particular appear to be consolidating around former president Donald Trump. For now, the United States is left with its current party configurations.

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Sean Bock (@_SeanBock) is a PhD candidate in sociology at Harvard University.

Landon Schnabel (@LandonSchnabel) is the Rosenthal Assistant Professor of Sociology at Cornell University.

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