Cameron Anderson and Laura Stephenson, associate professors in the political science faculty at the University of Western Ontario, wondered about the concept of “partisanship” in Canadian politics and what that might mean for voting behaviour.
By partisanship, the professors mean the concept of an individual being attached to or having some sort of affective bond to a particular party. How strong is that bond? What are the factors that influence the bonding and, by extension, the unbonding, if you will, of that relationship? And are there some differences between Conservatives, Liberals, and New Democrats when it comes to the partisan attachment its supporters have?
The answer, in a paper they presented over the summer at the annual conference of the Canadian Political Science Association, is that yes: The research seems to indicate that Liberals come to be Liberals by a different route than New Democrats and Conservatives come to their party affiliation.
For example: If you're a Liberal partisan, the odds are pretty good that at least one of your parents was a Liberal. Anderson and Stephenson find that 55 per cent of those who identify themselves as a Liberal partisan have a parent who is a Liberal but just 38 per cent of Conservatives can say the same thing and 23 per cent of New Democrats get their NDP orange from their parents.
And while more Liberals inherit their fondness for that party, Conservatives and New Democrats appear to have rationalized their way to their particular political brand. The researchers say that 90 per cent of Conservatives come to identify themselves as Conservative because they “held positive issue tallies” with the party. What they mean by “issue tallies” is that partisan keeps a kind of running scorecard about his or her partisan attachment and whenever new information about relationship surfaces it reinforces that partisan attachment or weakens it. In other words, I suppose, Conservatives and NDP partisans are constantly matching up their political bent to the latest political information they have and constantly questioning their partisan attachment. Kind of sheds a new light on how and why parties on the right in Alberta, for example, and a few times in Canadian federal history exhibit a pattern whereby splinter parties will pop up and often eat the mainstream right-wing party. (Alberta PCs, say hello to Wild Rose!)
New Democrats have a similar “cognitive influence” approach to their brand with 80 per cent, according to the researchers, arriving at the New Democrat outlook on life by thinking about it rather than inheriting it.
Just 62 per cent of Liberal partisans are Liberal partisans because they thought themselves into that position.
Now, I am probably overgeneralizing the findings of Anderson and Stephenson. It's a little more nuanced than all that. They conclude, for instance, that there are number of sociodemographic factors that are very strong for each party that influence partisanship. If you're a Protestant, for example, you're more likely to be a Conservative. The researchers find that if you're a Catholic and/or an immigrant, you are [still] likely to be a Liberal.
Moreover, the authors make quite an effort to point out that parental partisanship, sociodemographic factors, and cognitive influence should not be given equal weight as factors when it comes to determining partisanship. In fact, as they say, the “cognitive influence” may be, the researchers conclude, the most significant factor that influences how partisans come to choose their party and it is also the most significant factor influencing the “intensity” of partisan's attachment to his or her party.
And, in one interesting datapoint in their paper, the researchers find that the loyalty of Liberal and NDP partisans tend to be influenced more by the party leader than do Conservative partisans.
Summing up then:
Liberal partisans share parental partisanship in great numbers, but even those partisans are not affected by parental partisanship when it comes to intensity and vote loyalty. Sociodemographic influences tend to be more significant for the Liberal and PC parties but not the NDP. This suggests an interesting divide among the parties, but also indicates that the effect of socialization on Canadians partisans is relatively weak.
Still: All of this is kind of fun stuff as we think about how any party might grow its base by stealing support from another party. We might extrapolate from these findings that:
1. So long as Liberals continue to reproduce, it stands to reason they will produce a lot of Liberals in future generations.
2. If only Liberals would think about it for a minute, they might not be Liberals.
3. The political leanings of a Conservative and New Democrat can be affected by an appeal to reason. Presumably, if any party can figure out how to make a rational appeal to Tory or NDP partisans, there are votes to be had.