David Sanders, Jonathan
Burton and Jack Kneeshaw, "Identifying the True Party
Identifiers: A Question Wording Experiment," Party
Politics, 8 (March, 2002), 193-205.
Since 1964, successive British Election Studies (BES) have
measured party identification (or partisanship) using a
modified version of the question that was originally devised
for the American National Election Study. Although minor
modifications have been made to the wording, we now have a
lengthy time-series of measures of 'very strong', 'fairly
strong' and 'not very strong' party identifiers covering
every general election since 1964. The need for 'continuity'
in survey measures over time argues for maintaining the
current form of the question. We argue here that the
evidence is now overwhelming that the current question
wording produces a flawed measure of partisanship.
Accordingly, future election studies should aim to provide
an accurate measure of partisanship, even if this involves
'breaking the time-series'. Part 1 of the paper reviews the
now considerable body of evidence that the existing BES
question battery does not adequately capture voters' 'real'
party identifications. Part 2 proposes an alternative
measure of partisanship based on changes in the way the
party identification question is asked and reports the
results of a 12-month survey experiment conducted during
1998--9. Part 3 explores some of the problems of model
mis-specification that arise from using the 'traditional'
measure of partisanship and, by comparing simple models of
vote choice using both the 'traditional' and 'alternative'
measures, suggests that the continued use of the
'traditional' measure of partisanship may cause us to
incorrectly estimate models of vote choice.
Figures and Tables:
Table 1. Measured levels of party identification in Britain,
1964-97, using the 'traditional' question sequence
Table 2. Dynamic measures of partisanship derived from the
British Household Panel Survey, 1991-7
Table 3. Results of 12 split-sample surveys of British
voters, November 1998 to October 1999
Table 4. Models of Conservative and Labour voting
intentions, using 'traditional' and 'revised' measures of
party identification; pooled monthly survey data, November
1998 to October 1999
Party identification has long been both pivotal and
contentious as a variable that contributes to the
explanation of voting in British elections. It has been
pivotal because there are -- still -- clearly many voters
who think of themselves as long-term party supporters and
who remain loyal to the same party across different
elections. It has been contentious because there have always
been general doubts about how partisanship should be
measured and specific concern that the 'traditional' BES
measure is so encompassing that it is tautologically related
to vote. We have shown here that, if survey respondents are
given a clear opportunity to indicate that they do not think
of themselves as long-term supporters of a particular party,
then the measured level of partisanship is significantly
lower than that obtained using the traditional BES approach.
Indeed, we estimate on this basis that little more than half
of the UK electorate can realistically be regarded as
genuine partisans. We also recognize that, if more dynamic,
panel-based measures are employed, then this figure falls
even further. However, given that it is still necessary to
measure partisanship in cross-sectional surveys, the sort of
approach to partisanship measurement we advocate here has
important lessons for the way that party identification is
measured in future British Election Studies.