The Dismal Science

You Never Forget Your First

Why do voters tend to stick with whatever political party they join when they turn 18?

Voting habits are hard to break

Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain came in large part from his near-unprecedented support from America’s young people— 66 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds and 69 percent of first-time voters cast their ballots for Obama in 2008, compared with 53 percent of the population overall. Despite getting trounced in the midterm elections last month, the Democrats have maintained their edge with young voters, holding on to 58 percent of the under-30 set, according to exit polls.

A newly released study suggests that the echoes of Obama’s youthful appeal could continue to reverberate through 2012 and beyond, simply because voters who register for one party keep casting ballots for that party for years after. The first-time voters who were caught up in Obamamania when they registered are likely to stay Democrats well into the future.

In the new study, economists Ethan Kaplan and Sharun Mukand compared the political allegiances of Californians who turned 18 just before and just after the 9/11 attacks, which caused a national shift to the right. They found that voters with birthdays in September were more likely to register as Republicans than voters with birthdays in August. These voters then continued to register as Republicans at higher rates in 2006 and 2008. Once a registered Republican, always a Republican, it would seem.

On the face of it, there’s no obvious reason why the mere act of registering for a party need have a lasting influence on one’s political sympathies. It’s a straightforward process to change your party affiliation, and it’s a virtual necessity for anyone moving residences. Typically voters who move need to re-register in order to vote near their new address, at which point they’re presented with the option of changing their registered political allegiance.

Yet there are reasons to expect party ties to be sticky. A registered Republican will find himself on all sorts of mailing lists that expose him to an onslaught of propaganda explaining the evils of taxation and the glories of laissez-faire capitalism; registered Democrats are similarly treated to propaganda about affordable health care and regulating Wall Street. The net effect is a hardening of party affiliations on both sides.

Once you become part of the Republican club, your Republican identity becomes part of who you are. There exists an innate human desire to fit in, to have what psychologists call a social identity. It’s a powerful enough force that experimenters have been able to manipulate the way total strangers treat one another simply by assigning them  to different-colored “teams.”    Those randomly assigned to be Red sympathize more with other Reds and are more antagonistic toward Blues. Similarly, registered Republicans interpret the news and see the world in a way that’s sympathetic to Republican views and hostile to Democratic ones, simply because their Republican registration becomes part of their identity.

Still, there is a remarkable connection between the ballot cast by a voter today and the politics of his youth: Voters who turned 18 during the Kennedy era are more likely to vote for Democrats than those just a few years their senior, who came of age in the (Republican) Eisenhower years.

There are many possible explanations for these patterns. Voters obviously don’t register as Republicans by random chance—they do so at least in part because they have Republican views to begin with. The fact that those views often last a lifetime may have nothing to do with a feeling of kinship with other Republicans but rather with the fact that these voters possess firmly held Republican beliefs. Such party loyalists might also have lasting family circumstances that lead them to favor Republican policies. For example, many rich kids register as Republicans at 18 and continue to register as Republicans when they’re rich 40-year-olds. And growing up at different times—the counterculture ‘60s vs. the conformity of the 1950s—presumably gives the youth of these eras very different formative experiences that shape their politics forever.

To strip away these complications, Kaplan and Mukand compare the registrations of California voters born between Aug. 16 and Sept. 15, 1983. Because of their slightly earlier birthdates, the August babies were more likely to register  before the 9/11 attacks than the September babies. (Registering to vote for the first time may also be the kind of thing you’re more likely to do in a timely fashion if your birthday is before the beginning of the school year. In 2001, Aug. 31 was the Friday before Labor Day.) By focusing just on the effect of slightly different birthdays rather than comparing those who registered after 9/11 to those before, the authors avoid the problem that different sorts of people—perhaps very Republican ones—may have been prompted to register by the terrorist attacks.

The slightly younger September cohort thus only got around to registering as the Bush administration’s war on terror was underway. The homeland security message resonated with a public wary of further attacks, gave a boost to the approval ratings of George W. Bush, and presumably influenced the registration decisions of young voters.

Fast-forward to 2006. By then, the voters were all 23 years old. They’d witnessed the Twin Towers fall with the same 18-year-old perspective and saw America mired in the same wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only difference between the two groups was a higher chance of having registered after 9/11 for the September group.

Yet these essentially identical groups still held different political allegiances in 2006: The fraction of voters born between Sept. 1 and Sept. 15, 1983 who were registered as Republican was two percentage points higher than the fraction of voters born between Aug. 16 and Aug. 31 of that year. (On average, 28 percent of Californians are registered Republicans.) The effect proved to be remarkably persistent: Looking at 2008 registration records, the researchers found that September babies still registered as Republicans 2 percent more often than August ones. The difference in Republican registration rates between the two groups induced by the Sept. 11 attacks has proved to be remarkably persistent, remaining intact at least to 2008.

Might the effect that Kaplan and Mukand have observed merely be the result of inertia—of voters changing political allegiance but not bothering to update their party affiliation?  That doesn’t seem to be the case. Limiting their analysis only to registrants who changed their address (and hence were forced to re-register) since 2001, they find a gap of more than 6 percentage points between the August and September birthdays—three times the average for the sample overall. Given that the effect doesn’t diminish among movers, it’s very unlikely that the September birthday effect is purely the result of inertia. (The fact that it’s three times larger suggests that movers are somehow different from voters overall. It turns out that they tend to be from zip codes that are richer, whiter, and more Republican than average—movers thus might have their Republican identity reinforced because they’re more likely to be surrounded by other Republicans.)

In explaining their results, the authors argue that they are unlikely to be the result of exposure to one-sided propaganda. The August-September Republican registration gap widens for voters living nearby four-year college campuses, which the researchers take as a rough proxy for informed citizenry who are likely to keep up on current affairs and be less swayed by party literature. The authors favor instead the explanation that party registration imparts a self-perpetuating political identity that lives on well past voters’$2 18th birthdays.

The implications for political operatives from both parties is clear—rocking the vote among college freshman can pay dividends many years down the line, and campaign dollars should be allocated accordingly.

But if political divisions are a matter of social identity, is there any hope of healing the red team–blue team divide in America? The pioneering work of social psychologist Muzafer Sherif may provide some insight. Sherif ran a series of studies with 12-year-old boys in a summer camp-like setting in Robbers Cave State Park in Oklahoma. He divided the “campers” into two teams—Rattlers and Eagles—and despite no prior relationships among the boys, Rattlers befriended other Rattlers and eyed Eagles with suspicion and hostility. It was Red and Blue teams all over again. Yet when Sherif set up challenges that forced all the boys to work together—like pulling a broken-down truck back to camp or solving a water shortage—the animosity between Rattler and Eagle disappeared, never to return. One might have thought that fighting wars abroad and dealing with financial calamity at home would be challenge enough to set aside partisan divides. Then again, perhaps pre-adolescent boys have more open minds than today’s electorate.

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