Issue Positions and Identity in White Southern Partisan Realignment

The book Democracy for Realists is incredibly important for understanding the current American political environment, but as its authors Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels show, it also sheds light on key historical events. In one particularly informative example, Achen and Bartels apply their framework–the predominance of social identities and groups over issues and policy preferences for shaping political outcomes–to the question of what drove white partisan realignment in the South. Conventional wisdom holds that differences in opinion on racial policy issues underpinned Southern white flight from the Democratic Party. Achen and Bartels, however, demonstrate that the evolving partisan distribution of Southern whites did not differ much by opinion on key issues, such as support for or opposition to (1) enforced racial integration in schools or (2) government aid for blacks. Instead, Southern whites on either side of these issues moved just about equally away from the Democratic Party and to the Republican Party, leading Achen and Bartels to conclude that white Southern partisan realignment was not about policy issues. In further analysis, the authors show the partisan movement centered more on white Southern identity, proxied by feeling thermometer ratings of “Southerners,” as those strongest in this identity were most likely to have left the Democratic Party.

While not as specific policy preference questions as the ones Achen and Bartels used, there is some other interesting data in the ANES–not used by the authors–about general issue positions and perceptions speaking to racial conservatism. I wanted to check these, as well as the Southern feeling thermometer the authors used, as a way to further shed light on white Southern partisan realignment–and whether it varied more by issue positions or indicators of identity attachment.

For a couple years in the 1960s and 70s, the ANES asked respondents whether they favored desegregation, strict segregation, or something in between. Below, I plot how Democratic margin (Democratic % – Republican %) looked like by position on this issue among whites in the South. (Note: In all of the below plots, points correspond to sample size to give a sense of certainty of the estimates and serve as a reminder that these should be interpreted with caution as they’re not very precise.)


This is a short time frame, but if issue positions were driving partisan realignment, we would expect people who favored strict segregation/something in between to become less Democratic (i.e. drop further downward along the y-axis) at a faster rate than those who favored desegregation. At least in these early stages of realignment shown here, that’s not the case. There is movement (downward) away from the Democratic Party, but it doesn’t consistently occur in either of these issue position groups to a greater degree. Instead, those favoring the more racially liberal position of desegregation (the red line) trend Republican at faster rates in some of these years.

Another question with a longer times span is also informative. From the 1960s to the 90s, ANES respondents indicated whether they believed civil rights leaders pushed too fast, too slowly, or moved at the right speed. While not about a specific policy, the question does capture racial ideology to some extent–answers of “Too fast,” plotted in red in the below graph, mark the more conservative response.


As the graph shows, shifts away from the Democratic Party do not follow conservative or liberal positions on this issue. White Southerners who believed civil rights leaders pushed too fast and those who believed leaders pushed too slowly/at the right speed were about equally likely to leave the Democratic Party over time. Once again, this goes to show that key racial issues of the day did not shape partisanship change in the white South.

In conjunction with similar analysis by Achen and Bartels that show the same dynamic, the main takeaway here is that white Southern movement away from the Democratic Party and to the Republican Party does not appear to be associated with positions on racial issues. To argue in favor of an identity-driven partisan change story, Achen and Bartels focus on a feeling thermometer of “Southerners” (similar ratings are asked of other social groups too). While far from perfect, this measure should capture some semblance of Southern identity–what Achen and Bartels argue contributes most to the realignment. Like with the prior graphs, I wanted to check how white Southern partisan distribution varies by strength of this Southern identity proxy. I constructed a “Strong Southern Identity” measure (at the 75th percentile of the Southerners thermometer rating) and “Weak Southern Identity” measure from this ANES question, and plotted how the margin for Democratic partisan identification varied over time by these two identity strength levels. (Note: Different handling of this data–e.g. using the median or a rating of 50 as the cutoff for high or low identity strength–produce similar results.)


Although this thermometer rating isn’t asked in several years, a pattern becomes present: starting by the mid- to late-1970s, white Southerners with the strongest sense of Southern identity become more Republican over time than those with a weaker sense of this identity. Specifically, in 1976, those with strong Southern identities were 64 percent Democrat and 19 percent Republican. By 2008, they were 27 percent Democratic and 63 percent Republican. On the other hand, in 1976, those with weak Southern identities were 50 percent Democrat and 33 percent Republican. By 2008, they certainly changed their partisanship too, but not to the same degree, as they were 36 percent Democrat and 49 percent Republican. In sum, over this 32-year span, the partisanship of strong Southern identifiers changed a net 80 points in favor of the GOP–for weak Southern identifiers, it was less than half at just a 31-point swing.

Taking this graph and earlier ones together, these results further reinforce the notion–as established by Achen and Bartels–that identity, more so than racial conservatism or liberalism on issues, played a bigger role in the partisan realignment of white Southerners. The power of social identity relative to that of policy preferences for political behavior seems to dominate today’s political scene–perhaps this dynamic is a bigger part of American political history than commonly accepted as well.

Issue Positions and Identity in White Southern Partisan Realignment

A Quick Look at a Response Order Experiment Results

Does the order in which a survey respondent sees web question response options affect the response to the question? Such a question has often been probed in survey research, with tests typically finding a primacy effect. When taking surveys where they can see an entire set of questions (i.e. not phone surveys, for which recency effects come into play), respondents are biased towards selecting response options that appear earlier (see here for a review of past work on this). This satisficing behavior is problematic in that it breaks with the assumption of respondents considering an entire response option set when answering a question, and instead choosing earlier options and responses that are first reasonably acceptable to survey-takers. Notably, this could produce an inaccurate reflection of actual opinion if later, overlooked response options better capture the respondent’s opinion.

In a recent survey I conducted, I embedded a response order experiment to see whether such response order effects had been plaguing the student surveys I’ve been running. Specifically, on various questions about social/academic life perceptions and experiences during students’ freshman years, I assigned a random half of survey respondents to see a certain response order for a question, and the other half of survey-takers to see the reversed response order for that same question (note: “Not sure” options always appeared at the end of a set). I did this for 15 questions (one of which was actually a five-question grid), and checked to see if response percentages were statistically significantly different between the groups that saw different response orderings. In short, I did not find any significant response order effects. While there were differences in the expected direction (when responses appeared earlier in the set, they were chosen more often), none of these differences attained significance at the 0.05 level.

A few response order differences came close to significance though, which I want to briefly touch on. When students were asked how much they missed home during their freshman year, more chose “A little” when it appeared second in the response set (49 percent) than when it appeared third (37 percent). The small sample size for the experimental groups (roughly 180 weighted N in each) made for larger 95% confidence intervals and thus these groups are not significantly different here. Interestingly, the difference size does not appear as drastic for the other response options for this question.

home response order effect 9-3-17

When students were asked whether they have regrets about coming to Dartmouth, a noticeable–though not significant–divide appears by whether they see the response option of “Yes” or “No” first. When “Yes” appears first, 55 percent of students say they have regrets while 38 percent say they don’t have regrets. On the other hand, when “No” precedes “Yes” in the response set, 41 percent say they have regrets while 51 percent say they don’t have regrets. Again, conclusions from this are limited by sample size constraints, but it’s still notable that response tendencies swing in this manner, especially as it’s just a two-question response inversion (rather than four-question responses that are reversed in other cases).

regret response order effect 9-3-17

I would need a larger sample to confirm, but it does that seem that for some questions–in this case, those that trended more sensitive than other questions in the survey–response ordering matters. For aggregate results that are always the ones reported, randomly reversing the response order would alleviate some of these concerns. At the same time, it’s worth keeping in mind that this only occurred for two of 15 questions (and in truth, 19, given the grid questions), so it’s not as serious a problem–besides the fact that none of the response order effects were significant anyways.

A Quick Look at a Response Order Experiment Results