The term party dealignment refers to the erosion of party loyalties in an electorate. In theory, dealignment can occur in any electoral system, but the term is applied mostly to American politics. As used, here, it refers to the decrease in the percentage of American adults that identify either as Democrats or Republicans, and the corresponding increase in the percentage that identify as independents.
Party identification is an individual’s psychological attachment to one or another of the major political parties. Those who identify as Democrats or Republicans are referred to as party identifiers, while those who decline to declare themselves either Democrats or Republicans are referred to as independents. Pollsters generally use a seven-point scale to measure party identification. The American National Election Studies (ANES) asks survey respondents, “Generally speaking, do you think of yourself as a Republican, Democrat, an independent, or what?” Next, Republican or Democratic identifiers are asked whether they identify strongly or not so strongly with their party, while independents are asked whether they lean toward one party or the other. Based on responses, pollsters then place respondents along a 7-point scale (1: Strong Democrat; 2: Weak Democrat; 3: Independent Democrat; 4: Independent Independent; 5: Independent Republican 6: Weak Republican; 7: Strong Republican).
In the American electorate, dealignment occurred primarily between the 1960s and 1990s. The political scientist Marjorie R. Hershey describes the process as follows:
In the 1950s and early 1960s, many more Americans called themselves Democrats than independents or Republicans. The Democratic edge began to erode after 1964, but Republicans were not immediately able to capitalize on the Democrats’ losses. In fact, the proportion of Republican identifiers declined from 1964 through the 1970s, even when a Republican president, Richard Nixon, was elected in 1968 and reelected by a landslide in 1972. Democrats retained control of Congress, split-ticket voting was fairly common, the proportion of “pure independent” identifiers increased, and there was a steady stream of independent and third-party candidates. These changes in partisanship struck many scholars as resembling a dealignment, or decline in party loyalties. (2006, p. 133)
Party identification data indicate the trend well. The share of Americans identifying as either pure independents or independent “leaners” increased from 23 percent in 1952 to around 33 percent during the 1980s, to 40 percent in 2000, and remained nearly steady at 39 percent in 2004 (Hershey 2006, p. 325). However, further examination of the data also suggests that the share of Americans identifying as “pure” independents has decreased since the 1990s, while the share identifying as strong partisans, independent Democrats, and independent Republicans has also increased. Some political scientists argue that this indicates a renewed partisan polarization in the American electorate.
The consequences of dealignment include an increase in split-ticket voting (voting for different parties’ candidates for different offices) and lower voter turnout. Party identification is the single most important influence on voting, and as fewer Americans identify with a major party, straight-ticket voting (for candidates of only one party) becomes less attractive and Americans are more likely to support different parties’ candidates for different offices. Similarly, party identification simplifies voting decisions. But as more Americans identify as independents, they lose the easy voting cues that identification with a major party provides. Thus, more Americans must invest time and energy in researching and forming impressions of individual candidates, office by office. For some, the costs of this are too high, and voter turnout is likely to decline as a result.
Party dealignment is a distinct concept from realignment. While dealignment means an erosion of party loyalties, realignment refers to an enduring shift in loyalty from one major party to the other among large numbers of voters. Further, this usually occurs in large enough numbers to create a new and lasting partisan majority. Thus, the 1896 election marked a partisan realignment that created a Republican majority in American politics that lasted until 1932. That year, perceived Republican inadequacies in addressing the Great Depression forged a Democratic majority in national politics that lasted until 1968.
In 1968, controversies over race relations, the Vietnam War, and the increasing importance of cultural issues contributed to partisan dealignment. During the 1970s and 1980s, that dealignment eroded Democratic dominance, but the number of independents increased much more than the number of Republicans did. More recently, other factors, including the realignment of white southerners toward the Republican Party and the renewed focus on national security issues after the September 11, 2001, attacks, contributed to Republican gains in party identification. In 2004 the share of Americans identifying as Democrats and Republicans was identical (at 33 percent) for the first time since the advent of modern polling.
SEE ALSO Dixiecrats; Elections; New Deal, The; Party Systems, Competitive; Political Parties; Voting; Voting Patterns
American National Election Studies (ANES). Party Identification 7-Point Scale 1952-2004. Ann Arbor, MI: ANES. http://www.electionstudies.org/nesguide/toptable/tab2a_1.htm.
Campbell, Angus, Philip Converse, Warren Miller, and Donald Stokes. 1960. The American Vote. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hershey, Marjorie R. 2006. Party Politics in America. 12th ed. New York: Pearson Longman.
Keefe, William J., and Marc J. Hetherington. 2003. Parties, Politics, and Public Policy in America. 9th ed. Washington, DC: CQ Press.