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Fiorina: Parties and partisanship

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Fiorina. 2002. Parties and partisanship: A 40 year retrospective. Political Behavior 24 (2, special issue: Parties and Partisanship, part one): 93-115.


Over the last 40 years, the literature on parties has gone through two phases. During the 1960s and 1970s, scholars decried the decline of parties. In all three realms (party in government, party organization, and party in electorate) parties were declining (see Figures 1, 2, and 3). But in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars began to notice the resurgence of parties (Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7). Fiorina makes several arguments that the "resurgence" has not been as strong as we might think, and he urges scholars who study parties to approach them as a single subject, not to specialize in party in government, party organization, or party in electorate.

Party Decline

Party Organizations

Party organizations declined for a few main reasons. First, direct nominations and other progressive reforms made it so people did not have to work their way up through party hierarchies to be nominated. Second, civil service reforms and other changes reduced the ability of parties to dole out pork.

Party in Government

Congressional parties were growing even weaker. Members of Congress regularly crossed party lines. Conservative Southern Democrats frequently sided with Republicans.

Party in Electorate

A decreasing number of NES respondents were strong party identifiers. Support for parties seemed to be declining.

Party Resurgence

Party Organizations

The RNC began actively recruiting and training candidates, and providing money ("soft money") to revive local party organizations.

Party in Government

(Rohde especially) saw party as increasingly resurgent in Congress. Party-line voting became much more frequent (Fig 5). Congressional campaigns increasingly sought to tie the incumbent to Congressional party and its leadership.

Party in Electorate

Party identification (in NES) began to rise, though it didn't rise to quite its earlier levels.

Reasons to be skeptical of party resurgence

Party Organizations

  1. Conceptualization: The scholarly concept of what a party organization is has changed. In the 1950s and 1960s, a strong party organization meant a local party machine that doled out pork. Now it means a strong DNC and RNC that dole out soft money. But is this really the same? If not, can we claim party organizations have been revived?
  2. Measurement. What do we mean when we measure party strength? Does the fact that they employ more people and spend more money mean that they are stronger, or are they 'just busy'?
  3. Theoretical problem: Some argue that party organizations are stronger because the party in the electorate is weaker--stronger RNC and DNC help candidates raise more money, which is necessary in light of decreased partisanship. But the party-in-electorate scholars say that partisanship is also on the rise. This inconsistency wouldn't arise if the various party scholars read one another's work more.

Party in Electorate

There is evidence that partisan realignment has occurred. Thus, whereas there used to be moderately conservative Democrats and moderately liberal Republicans (Figure 8), these groups have switched parties. And realignment can create the illusion that party ID matters more in voting decisions. But this is a spurious correlation; perhaps it is the underlying ideology that has greater weight, but people have moved toward the party that represents their party ID more accurately.

Similarly, the situation in Figure 8 could lead us to think that partisanship is more important if more extreme candidates came onto the scene. If one candidate is more extreme than the other, than all of one party supports the moderate candidate, but only part of the other party supports its extreme candidate. Thus, partisanship appears to have become more important to voters, but this is really a (spurious) artifact of candidate positions. (See Figure 10, p 107).

Also, most analyses of voting behavior omit third-party and abstaining voters. But if partisanship has decreased, then we would expect abstention and third-party-voting to increase. When people claim that partisanship has revived, they are neglecting the rises in abstention and third-party voting. Controlling for these changes (Table 1, p 110) paints a very different picture--a decreasing proportion of eligible voters is supporting the major parties. Perhaps partisanship is not resurgent, after all.

Party in Government

These problems are less common in party-in-government studies, because scholars of legislative politics tend to cooperate across the various subfields of Congressional politics (committee politics, party in Congress, Congressional elections, etc.). This should serve as a model to other scholars of party: They must read work by other party scholars or they will miss important points.

Research by the same authors

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Fiorina, Morris (author)Political ScienceAmerican PoliticsPartiesVotingPartisanshipRetrospective Voting

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