What does politics look like to a partisan?

Why partisan voters vote how they vote matters during such a close election


Most of us share the same—or similar—news sources. But the information we get isn’t received, interpreted, and understood the same by all of us. Political partisanship acts as both an identity and a perceptual screen or lens that affects how many Canadians receive political news, and how they think and talk about politics. So what? Well, the closest election race in Canadian history might just come down to the behaviour of partisans.

Back in early September, half of Canadian voters were unsure for which party they were going to cast a ballot. By implication, the other half had either already made up their minds or had decided to check out. Among those who had already chosen were some who had been convinced by the early campaigning of one party or another; but many others had decided before the writs were even issued: partisans.

Partisanship in Canada is tricky. For decades, academics have wondered how many Canadians are true partisans and why. Debates have raged over how survey questions around partisanship are worded, the effect of different party names and ideologies at the provincial and federal levels, whether Canadians are “durable” or “flexible” partisans, and whether American models and approaches can be applied north of the border.

At the risk of having my membership in the Canadian Political Science Association revoked, I’m going to set aside these questions and focus on how some partisans think and how that might affect the current election. Because whatever else is the case, two things seem to be true: at least some partisans think differently than non-partisans, and they could decide this election.

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Partisanship as an identity

I’m not a partisan. But many Canadians are avowedly so—and they’re easy to spot. They appear frequently in your Twitter feed, in the op-ed pages of local and national newspapers, in your Facebook newsfeed, on news programs, on the street wearing branded party clothing (seriously, partisan friends, branded party clothing?).

Many of these partisans aren’t just members of a party. They are the party. By this I mean that their identity as a person is bound up in part with their allegiance to that party in the sort of way that one’s identity is dependent on religion or ethnicity.

The idea that partisanship is part of one’s identity goes way back. In 1960, political scientists Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, Donald Stokes published The American Voter. In it, they argued that partisanship is something that individuals are socialized into at a young age and to which they form a psychological attachment.

But how is that attachment maintained over time? After all, the bumpy world isn’t always hospitable to one’s smooth ideas about the party.

One of the common effects of partisan identity is to condition how people process information. Partisan stereotyping is one effect. When this happens, voters, regardless of their own partisan views, evaluate political leaders based on the partisanship of the leader. Typically this results in conservative (i.e. right wing) leaders being rated as more competent while progressive (i.e. left wing) leaders are seen as having more character.

More from David Moscrop: You’re not the voter you think you are

This phenomenon holds across a number of democratic countries. So Canadians—partisan or not—might think of Stephen Harper as more competent than Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau because Harper is a conservative (small-c, which is to say he is ideologically conservative and not progressive). This sorting provides a typology for partisans (and non-partisans) to keep the world sorted and ordered.

This tendency to sort based on major leadership traits could have profound implications for the current election. Given that the race is a close one, an undecided voter concerned about the economy, terrorism, or crime who decides to vote for a “competent” leader over one with “character” stands a higher chance of determining the election’s outcome than in past contests. Thus, if the Conservative party can frame the election as being about choosing the most competent party—and they’ve certainly been trying to do that—then they will have a decent shot at remaining in power.

Partisanship as a screen or a lens

One of the most important ways a partisan is able to stay loyal in the face of good reasons to doubt or re-evaluate that loyalty is through biased information processing. Their partisanship can act as a lens—or, as political behaviourists call it, “a perceptual screen.”

Research by Geoffrey Evans and Mark Pickup, using data from the United States and published in the Journal of Politics in 2010, showed that people’s perception of the economy was affected by their political preferences. This means that whether or not an American supported the president of the day had an impact on their perception of how the economy was doing. Liking the president led individuals to perceive the economy was doing well, while disliking the president had the opposite effect. Preference (that is, partisanship) warped fact.

If your partisan preference is part of your identity, and you have a predisposition to want to feel good about yourself and about the things you like (e.g. a political party), then you’re going to have a hard time making sense of the world when something you prefer (again, like a political party) is seen as wrong or bad.

Related research by Donald Green and his colleagues, published in their 2002 book Partisan Hearts and Minds, links the idea that partisanship is a lens with the social identity I discussed above. Their theory suggests that not only is partisanship learned at a young age, but it’s learned in such a way that binds individuals to a party as a social group. Ideology then doesn’t matter—partisans choose their party first, and then adjust to whatever ideological programme the party espouses.

Once again, preference (or in this case identity) warps how a partisan processes information to fit into the sort of person they want to be and the sort of world they want to live in. (As it happens, this sort of thinking occurs outside of political partisanship, too; indeed, if you’ve ever met someone who thinks every song by Hall and Oates is a winner, you’ve seen this phenomenon at its worst.)

In Canada, political scientists André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Patrick Fournier, Neil Nevitte, Joanna Everitt, and Jiyoon Kim found that partisanship also affects political judgment. Studying the Liberal sponsorship scandal of the early 2000s, they find that given the same information, Liberals are less likely to think that then-finance minister Paul Martin knew about the scandal than are opposition partisans.

Does this matter? Well, it depends: do you think Stephen Harper knew of Nigel Wright’s intention to cut a $90,000 cheque to Sen. Mike Duffy before it happened? Which party do you support?

Partisanship also affects how people interpret political ads. What they say about their party and other parties. They way their perceive debate performances (“My guy or gal won,” said every partisan after every debate ever). The sort of news they seek and share. And just about every facet of an election.

Related: Try Maclean’s Policy Face-Off Machine to find the party that you most align with

During a tight campaign in which the parties are all generally close together and flexible ideologically, the presence of partisans raises the question of whether hundreds of thousands of Canadians, who may determine the outcome of the election, are casting a ballot for the policies or the philosophies of the parties on offer—or on their attachment to the Blue or Red or Orange or Green or Light Blue team. This matters because it raises the question of what exactly voters are choosing on election day. A competent candidate? A capable leader? A sound platform of policies? Or are they just rooting for the home team?

If the judgment of partisans is compromised by their partisanship—if partisans are likely to toe the line despite good reasons not to—then given how close this election is, it might come down to the question of which party is best at getting out their core supporters rather than investing resources in gaining new ones. After all, the core of the party will be there. So if you can get them to cast a ballot, then that might make all the difference a party needs to win.

Partisans are very motivated people

All of this brings us to motivated reasoning—a subject I touched on in the first piece in this series. Motivated reasoning occurs when someone’s thought process is directed outside of their awareness in order to reach a conclusion that is psychologically important and advantageous to them. Partisanship can drive motivated reasoning—as it did in the case of Americans who judged the economy based on how much they liked or disliked the president.

So it’s not that partisans support their party just because. There are complex cognitive forces and phenomena at work when a partisan thinks or talks about politics. You can almost hear the gears turning.

If I can oversimplify a tad in summary: this is how partisanship works. A partisan attaches to a party (this can be for any number of reasons: family, ethnicity, religion, socio-economic status, and so on). Their attachment becomes a part of who they are. They want to maintain a sense of dignity, self-worth, and goodness. Those desires affect how they search for, process, and interpret information—including factual information. This process then affects how they evaluate a party, policy, or politician. Favourable assessments then reinforce their partisanship. Welcome to the Cycle.

Why should we care about partisans? Partisanship matters. Even if party identification isn’t as strong or pervasive in Canada as it is in the United States, it makes a difference in how individuals seek, process, comment on, and create information. It also has an impact on how they vote. And in Canada’s closest election ever, it could be partisans who decide which party governs Canada after Oct. 19—and whether that party enjoys a minority or a majority government.

Meanwhile, the rest of us are beholden to the partisans who produce and contextualize information for our consumption. Partisans write the releases, do the news show rounds, strut the hustings, and battle over the frames Canadians will be exposed to. While partisanship is an essential part of the Canadian system, we may find ourselves in trouble when rank and file partisans decide elections. Because while politics and government is about what we all share, partisanship is about separate worlds: both those inside and those outside of our heads.

Further reading

Amanda Bittner. Leadership Evaluations and Partisan Stereotypes—A Comparative Analysis. In Personality Politics?: The Role of Leader Evaluations in Democratic Elections, edited by Marina Costa Lobo, John Curtice. Oxford University Press. 2015.

Geoffrey Evans and Mark Pickup. Reversing the Causal Arrow: The Political Conditioning of Economic Perceptions in the 2000–2004 U.S. Presidential Election Cycle. The Journal of Politics. October 2010.

Larry Bartels. Beyond the Running Tally: Partisan Bias in Political Perceptions. Political Behavior. June 2002.

Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes. The American Voter. Wiley and Sons. 1960.

Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler. Partisan Hearts and Minds. Yale University Press. 2004.

Dan M. Kahan. Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection. Journal of Judgment and Decision Making. July 2013.

André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Patrick Fournier, Neil Nevitte, Joanna Everitt, and Jiyoon Kim. Political judgments, perceptions of facts, and partisan effects. Electoral Studies. March 2010.

Richard Johnston. Party Identification: Unmoved Mover or Sum of Preferences? Annual Review of Political Science. 2006.

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