The Effect of Marriage on Political Identification

By Shikole Struber
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/3 |

Party identification among individuals is determined by multiple factors including current marital status and other variables such as income and level. The rate of for people over the age of 18 in the United States has decreased from 72% in 1970 to just 59% in 2002 (US Census Bureau). Marriage is superseding both race and income as the biggest class division of the century (Rauch, 2001). The extent of spousal influence on political behavior is a debated issue that has just recently gained interest by researchers, where in the past Party identification was thought to be more static.

The Influence of Spouses on One Another

There is much debate as to what causes people to change and choose their political parties.  Whether or not couples change their party identification to be more unified after marriage is a question that Stoker and Jennings explore (Stoker, 1989). It has been observed through NES data that married people tend to identify more with the Republican Party. According to Kaufmann and Petrocik “men have become increasingly Republican (Kaufmann, 1999),” while Abramowitz and Saunders also have identified married men as more likely followers of the Republican Party while single women tend to be Democrats (Abramowitz, 2006). If this proves true it might explain the Republican leanings of married couples. While women’s party identification has remained static individually according to Kaufman and Petrocik, married women have been subjected to Republican influence in their domestic lives more so than singles.

Stoker and Jennings describe the political situation marriage creates. They explain that each person brings their own political participation history to the marriage but that “marriage gives rise to a new and shared set of social and economic circumstances…” as well as opportunities to “learn from and influence” each other (Stoker, 1989). It makes sense that a married couple would share political influence as much as they would other aspects of their lives. According to the Michigan School, political identification is fashioned in early childhood from parents. The home a child is brought up in teaches as much as it does table manners. David Knoke also found that “the best single predictor of an individual’s party preference is the preference of his parents (Knoke, 1972).” Using this method of thinking, by the time a person is married they should have a solid opinion on politics and party identification as well as participation expectations. Considering that a person’s party identification will change because of marriage does not fit in the traditional definition that has been described. However, a spouse is a symbol of a new family being started. In this way, the spouse could have the same effect as parents did growing up. The influence they exert could alter previously held positions. Weiner describes this as “re-socialization” after marriage (Weiner, 1978). The extent of the influence is contested because it opposes the previous views on the stronghold of attitudes in politics.

Another theory that addresses spousal influence is Becker’s joint household utility theory. This theory of party identification implies that both the husband and wife will vote on the basis of the husbands economic interests (Kan, 2006). The economy is an important area of consideration when voting especially with a looming threat of recession. It implies that both partners will be supporting the same party on the basis of economic policy. Changing a preference according to individual gain is much more plausible than the theory Stoker and Jennings present. Utility is an important aspect of politics. When people feel like they get something out of their actions and participation, it makes them more likely to continue; rational choice often dictates this. Becker’s theory however does not consider the possibility that the wife could be the primary bread-winner in a household. This assumption ignores a large percentage of the electorate. “Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later (Zernike, 2007).” If these women are the ones getting married, then they also have greater earning potential in the marriage, leaving Becker’s theory even more obsolete.

Hakim’s preference theory takes the potential for a wife to be the primary earner into account. She argues that women have more options in the modern world and are no longer constrained to be housewives. In her approach, she identifies three groups of women: the home-centered, the work-centered, and the adaptive/ambivalent woman. The home-centered woman would represent the traditional stay at home mother and housewife; the work-centered woman would represent the women who have a full time job/career on top of their household responsibilities; the adaptive/ambivalent woman would represent the women who had part time jobs in addition to a family and were not really sure which aspect of life is or should be more important to them (Kan, 2006). Each would have a different role economically, and in this theory politically, in relation to her spouse. Hakim “doesn’t draw any direct implications for political behavior” however, the work-centered woman will obviously have more influence from outside the house, like work and community, than the other groups. This would expose her to different perspectives than hers and her spouses. It would also indicate that she was earning money in partnership with her spouse. Plutzer and McBurnett also identify the “nontraditional” marriage, where the wife works full time, as encouraging “interest-based voting behavior (Plutzer, 1991).” The home-centered woman would be expected to borrow or conform to her husband’s economic and political ideologies to a greater extent than the other types (Kan, 2006).

The Parties as a Cause of Differences

The differing bases of partisanship and voting behavior have been referred to by researchers as the “marriage gap.” Weisberg theorizes that the “marriage gap” may be due to differing appeals by the parties themselves (Weisberg, 1987).”  He says that married people are 13% more likely to be conservative in politics than unmarried. Kingston and Finkel point out that married couples have a more socially conventional domestic life that may transfer to the political realm of their lives (Kingston, 1987). Flanigan and Zingale also cite traditional values as a reason for married couples to gravitate to the Republican Party while singles often identify more with the Democratic Party (Flanigan, 2006). Socially conventional domestic life refers to the nuclear family that has a mother, father and children where the father is the primary earner. Non-traditional domestic lifestyles refer to being single until later in life, having children out of wedlock, or having a same sex partner.

There are several policies that the Republicans promote that are aimed towards the conventional family. Some of the policies that are traditionally Republican include tax cuts for the wealthy to increase the flow of currency in the economy and increase the country’s GDP; the Federal Marriage Amendment that would officially define marriage as between a male and a female; the teaching of creationism in schools, and the No Child Left Behind Act. These policies do not necessarily apply to only married couples; there are single parents with children that the latter two policies would affect. After considering that marital status is an indicator of increased wealth, and that the institution of marriage itself is trying to be protected by the party, it is possible to see how the policy areas appeal more to married couples.  

Another aspect of married life that may cause married people to identify with a more conservative party is identified by Plissner as home-ownership and the presence of children (Plissner, 1983). “Homeowners are…slightly more inclined to vote and have conservative political preferences (Kingston, 1987).” The values that the Republican Party enunciates would fit in this theory as the reason for married people to vote for them. Plutzer and McBurnett (1991) found that this theory could work for a conservative candidate but not necessarily for a conservative party. However, they are the only researchers who have not agreed with conditions of marriage causing people to be more Republican. They see the vote with a conservative candidate as an aspect of voting behavior that the conditions of marriage affect, but not as party identification. This realm of thinking could be valid in some aspects. Ronald Reagan was a very popular President among both of the parties. Through his charisma he attracted followers from both the Democrats and Republicans, aiding in Plutzer and McBurnett’s theory.

One election that is contradictory to the theory that married people tend to be Republican is Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign that marketed family values better than the Republican Party did. In the 1996 campaign “Clinton’s ads showed him supporting school curfews, school uniforms, bans on cigarette ads aimed at children, and requiring teenage mothers to stay in school or lose welfare (Jamieson, 1999).” His crusade against the tobacco industry and guns, stereotypically Democratic ideologies, was spun to reflect the family values that those who were married would more identify with.

Marriage, family and their promotion has become somewhat of a partisan divide. Republicans are encouraging marriage and conventional family life. For this reason those Americans who are already married could be more inclined to support the party because of its support for their choices. Democrats on the other hand are more likely to be supporting anti-poverty and anti-teen pregnancy initiatives. These goals indirectly support the family, but are still partisan issues. Democrats also feel that the government is getting too involved when they are advocating for people to “get hitched (Rauch, 2001).”  It is common political understanding that the Republican Party promotes more regulation on people’s private and moral decisions such as and abortion. Yet, it advocates individual financial success without government interference (Hershey, 21). All of these things become more irrelevant with marriage. A married couple is less likely to need an abortion than a pregnant teen. A married couple is likely to have a stable financial situation because there are two incomes to contribute to the bills.

Not all researchers agree that the social institution of marriage is related as strongly to partisanship. Abramowitz and Saunders claim that “party identification is much more strongly related to voters’ ideological orientations than to their social identities as defined by their group membership (Abramowitz, 2006).” They fail to consider that ideological orientations can be derived from their social identities. Hershey has a chart that defines the differences in the two American parties including core supporters. The lists of core supporters for the Democratic party includes lower-income people, minority groups, secular individuals, teachers, and trial lawyers (Hershey, 21). All of these categories portray group membership and social identity. The correlation between these things and party identification is strong.

Causes of the Marriage Gap

Unmarried voters have become more prevalent in today’s society. A decline in marriage has contributed to the increasing number of unmarried voters. Weisberg agrees that “the marriage gap emerged just as the number of unmarried voters became large enough to have important political effects (Weisberg, 1987).” Edlund and Pande have credited the Democratic lean of the single voter to this decline. They claim that unmarried women have more of a need for social benefits that the Democratic Party offers (Edlund, 2002). The earning potential for women has increased dramatically through the past decade. Cherry cites studies that show fewer women may seek marriage as their earning potential rises. As women’s earnings increase, marriage rates have been seen to decrease (2003, 29). This contributes to more unmarried people who would need social services less because they earn enough already.

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