The 2018 midterm elections have been viewed both in America and the international community as a referendum on Donald Trump’s presidency (Remnick et al, BBC). This is evident in a number of factors. The most important factor is the voter turnout, which was at a record-setting 50.3%, compared to 36.7% in the 2014 midterms (United States Elections Project). According to the head of the United States Elections Project, Michael McDonald, “‘2018 appears to be an election where we’re going to have higher than typical midterm turnout…Why? Its name is Donald Trump’” (Siddiqui). Consequently, most candidates chose to run on pro or anti-Trump platforms. The division Trump has caused in elections is reflective of a larger trend: that “party polarization has rarely been more extreme” (Rosenbluth et al.).
In a study conducted by Geoffrey Cohen from Yale University on the impact of political parties on individuals, he found that “group influence can bias responses to persuasion.” Cohen states that, as a result, individuals have very strong, emotional connections to political parties. In order to test the strength of this connection in his research, Cohen presented different welfare bills to his participants and switched the party affiliations for the bills. For example, he indicated that the bill that was conservative in content was sponsored by the liberals, and vice versa. The majority of the participants would choose a bill that agreed less with their ideology, but more with their party affiliation. For example, a liberal participant would rate the conservative bill as more favorable because it was sponsored by the liberals, even if he identified more ideologically with the other bill that was sponsored by conservatives. Through this, he was able to conclude that often times, this emotional connection to a party often overrode his participant’s personal beliefs.
This study was conducted in 2003, and undeniably, our political landscape has changed since then. Now, with the further introduction of the internet, Russian trolls, and Donald Trump, all these elements contribute to the fact that “political polarization has rarely been more extreme” (Rosenbluth et al.). Politics are becoming more and more partisan, so, by Cohen’s theory, Democrats should be voting strictly with Democrats and Republicans should be voting strictly with Republicans. This theory is acknowledged by “Ideologues Without Issues”, a research paper conducted by Lilliana Mason from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Mason hypothesized that “elements of ideology are capable of driving heightened levels of…[political] polarization”. This means that ideology is a driver of higher levels of political polarization, and that ideology feeds into higher political polarization, rather than party affiliation feeding into higher polarization. This means that ideological liberals should be voting strictly with Democrats, and ideological conservatives should be voting strictly with Republicans.
However, this is not what is happening: Democrats are not voting strictly with Democrats, and Republicans are not voting strictly with Republicans. Mason recognizes that “Scholars have pointed out a significant difference between identity-based and issue-based ideology in the American electorate”, pointing to a clear divide between what voters believe, and who they will choose to vote for. This is reflected by the 2018 midterm elections. For example, though West Virginia had the second highest approval ratings in the country for Donald Trump in 2018, West Virginia had re-elected Democrat Joe Manchin into office (Tracking Trump: The President’s Standing Across the US). Like most Democratic candidates, Manchin chose to run on a more conservative platform. Though this trend was reflected in many of the midterm races, it is not consistent across all the 2018 elections. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat who ran on a conservative platform in Tennessee, the state with the fourth highest approval ratings for Donald Trump in the country, lost his race (Tracking Trump: The President’s Standing Across the US). The reason why the Bredesen example points to a clear disconnect, between what voters believe in and what voters choose to vote for, is that Bredesen was extremely well-liked in Tennessee. He was a former governor who had won every single county in Tennessee in his election year, and that popularity had continued into 2018. However, his personal popularity was not enough to catapult him into the Senate. Though these are just two examples, similar events happened all across the country. However, there was not much scholarship surrounding this phenomenon other than the Cohen and Mason studies. As a result of the changing political landscape and the general lack of literature on the subject, this phenomenon drove me to my research question, “Are Californians willing to choose party affiliation over political ideology? If so, why?” I chose to focus my research on Californians because they are the most accessible population to conduct my research with, since I live in California.