Dec 11, 2018

From the Archives

1 in 4 Americans Cast Ballots Outside Party Lines in Midterms

The midterms last month shifted the House of Representatives in favor of the Democrats, while Republicans maintained a majority in the Senate. Leading up to and following the election, many wondered: Just how entrenched are American voters? Have any actually shifted their political allegiance since Trump was elected? New research from Barna suggests that only a minority of Americans adults have, at some point, changed their minds about their fundamental political convictions. However, among people who report having switched political allegiances over time, many of them say they’ve done so recently, implying a level of political malleability among American adults in this fraught climate

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One-Quarter Voted for Candidates Not Affiliated With Their Registered Party in the Recent Election
The latest midterm shifts represent a slight move away from the kind of Republican support that won the 2016 election, and Barna’s data backs that up. For instance, one-quarter of American adults (25%) report voting for a candidate who was not affiliated with their registered party. Men (31%) were more likely to say they voted for candidates outside their registered party than women (19%). The story is the same with younger vs. older generations, with low reported shifts among Millennials (19%) and higher shifts claimed by Boomers (33%). White Americans (28%) were more likely than black Americans (16%) to say they voted for a candidate who was not affiliated with their registered party. Republicans (26%) were only slightly more likely to vote outside their registered party than Democrats (21%), while more than half of Independents (52%) say they chose one of the major parties. Evangelicals (19%) and practicing Christians (22%), a group that tends to vote conservative, were among the least likely to report voting outside of their registered party.

Respondents report voting outside their registered party more often for candidates at a national level (42%), than at the state (25%) or local (31%) level.

Most of those who say they voted for a candidate not affiliated with their registered party weren’t just making a single exception: Two-thirds (66%) report voting for either two (28%), three or more (38%) candidates outside their party. For the most part, Republicans and Democrats are equally as likely to report voting for multiple candidates not affiliated with their own party. The standout here is Independents, whose non-partisan voting approach makes them twice as likely to vote for multiple major-party candidates.

Most Americans Don’t Change Their Political Affiliation
Are these recent shifts in affiliation an anomaly, or indicative of larger trends in voter affiliation over time? While political affiliation from election to election can be fluid—and post-election surveys can sometimes reveal a social desirability bias toward the winning party—very few American adults say they have ever changed their registered political affiliation (16%). However, some are more willing to change their mind than others. For instance, men (20%) report changing their political affiliation almost twice as much as women (12%). Generationally, Boomers (22%) are also more than twice as likely to change their political affiliation than Millennials (10%). Of course, older generations have had more time to change their mind and more elections to influence their stance. White Americans (19%) are almost four times more likely than black Americans (5%) to say they’ve changed their political affiliation, a group which has historically and reliably voted for Democrats. By affiliation, Republicans (15%) and Democrats (14%) are no more likely than the other to change sides, while, perhaps unsurprisingly, Independents (29%) move around twice as often as members of the two main parties. Evangelicals (16%) and practicing Christians (13%) are about on par with the national average to report party-shifting.

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Most Movement Occurs Away from Democrats and Toward Independents
Among those who say they’ve changed their political affiliation at some point, the majority of the movement occurs away from Democrats and toward Independents. Among former Democrats, most (56%) switched to Republican, four in 10 (40%) switched to Independent and a small fraction (5%) chose a third party. For former Republicans, more than half (55%) switched to Democrat, four in 10 (41%) switched to Independent and a fraction (5%) chose a third party. Very few Independents have changed their mind (14%), but their ranks are swelling, with more than one-third of those who have ever changed party affiliation (34%) going Independent, suggesting a potential rise of political moderates or a growing disenfranchisement with the two-party system. The majority of former Independents (64%) became Democrats, while one-third (32%) became Republican.

One-Quarter of Americans Have Switched Political Allegiance Since Trump Was Elected
Most of the shifts in party affiliation reported by U.S. adults occurred before the November 2016 election (71%). These occurred either more than a decade ago (26%), within the past decade (23%) or within the past 5 years (22%). But at least one-quarter of American adults (26%) say they’ve switched political allegiance since Trump was elected to office: more than 1 in 10 (11%)report having done so in the past year and 15 percent within the last two years. Trump is often hailed as a polarizing figure, which may be contributing to these recent shifts.

Americans Switch Political Sides out of Frustration or Shifts in Personal Beliefs
Why do American adults change their political party affiliation? The main reason cited is frustration with their previous political party (39%)—a sentiment shared equally by Republican, Democrat and Independent alike—or seeing their own personal beliefs change to the point that they no longer align with their previous party (38%). Less commonly, people change affiliation solely because they heard positive things about another political party (10%).

What the Research Means
“As we’ve seen in past Barna research, politics is a primary influence on personal identity, one that has been ingrained from a young age and reinforced through one’s social world. Much like religion,” says Roxanne Stone, Barna’s editor in chief and lead designer for this study. “Perhaps this is why we’ve outlawed both at the dinner table. Barna has spent considerable time researching the likelihood of changing one’s religion over time. Hint: very few people do. Religion—like political affiliation—is often cemented into us at a young age, influenced by our family and the worldview in which we’ve grown up. However, it’s worth looking at those who do change affiliation. Like those who change faiths, it seems the move is not from one institution to another, but from one institution to none. The growing ranks of Independent voters calls to mind the growing number of the religiously unaffiliated—or “nones” as they are often called. This shift is generally characterized by a disenchantment with an institution and a feeling of distrust toward any similar institution. We can see in this research that most people who shift political allegiance generally do so out of frustration with their former party. Very few people are wooed to the other side of the aisle. The nature of our current political climate—that of extremes on both the right and the left—may be leading more moderate voters to feel disenfranchised from either party, to feel there is ‘no place for them.’”

This article has been updated and edited for clarity.

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About the Research
Interviews with U.S. adults included 1,067 web-based surveys conducted among a representative sample of adults over the age of 18 in each of the 50 United States. The survey was conducted between November 12-19, 2018. The sampling error for this study is plus or minus 3 percentage points, at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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