Political Party Persuasion

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The heads of political parties are always trying to find ways to persuade people to join them. Encouraging supporters to vote is perhaps the most obvious way in which party efforts can lead to electoral victories, and mobilization has been shown to increase turnout (Kramer 170). Political success, however, also depends on other forms of participation, and mobilization has also proven helpful in spawning campaign.

Mobilization is a costly activity, political parties are not able to mobilize all members of society. As a result, parties must be strategic in their efforts. I identify four primary strategic considerations. First, parties consider the participatory predispositions of individuals. That is, parties target individuals who are more likely to respond to mobilization, individuals who are more predisposed to activity by their individual characteristics.

Thus, predictors of voting (and other political activity) such as income, education, age, and party identification should also have positive effects on the likelihood of party mobilization efforts. While parties inevitably contact some individuals who are unlikely to participate, their financial and electoral needs promote greater attention to citizens who might be active even without recruitment efforts. At the same time that parties want their mobilization efforts to promote participation, they should not indiscriminately contact individuals likely to be active.

In attempting to win elections, parties should focus their efforts on individuals supportive of their party and its candidates and avoid mobilizing individuals who support their opponents (Kramer 170). Converting people predisposed to support the opposition party, if possible at all, will usually be quite expensive. Furthermore, contacting such people may stir their interest and spur them to action on behalf of the other party (Kramer 170).

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An additional consideration entering parties’ mobilization decisions is the social positioning of individuals. Namely, parties are more inclined to mobilize individuals who have greater social connections. The returns on mobilization efforts can be greatly enhanced if those people targeted will in turn exert influence on others.

There is logic of party recruitment that suggests democratic and republican parties should exhibit different patterns in their contacting since each will attempt to contact individuals generally supportive of the party. Past elections show that neither party focused their recruitment on individuals identifying with their party (or the other party) in the 156 and 160 elections.

The elections of 164 and 168 involve a radically different role for party identification. As expected, both parties were more likely to contact their own identifiers than independents during this time. However, the trend of parties to contact identifiers was not limited to individuals with a similarity for their own party. Both the Democrats and Republicans also devoted significant enrollment efforts to identifiers of the other party. This tendency suggests that with the party system in change, the parties engaged in both mobilization of their own supporters and attempts at conversion.

The 17-000 results are generally consistent with strategic contacting. In this period, unlike the 156-160 period but like the 164-168 period, both the Democrats and Republicans have been significantly more likely to contact their own identifiers (at least strong and weak identifiers) than independents. Furthermore, with the exception of a Republican inclination to contact strong Democrats, the parties have abandoned their targeting of opposition identifiers witnessed during the 160s.

Strategic behavior of likely supporters is also evident in the tendency of Democrats, at least since 164, to contact individuals voting for their presidential candidate in the previous election. On the other hand, Republicans do not exhibit such a consideration. The social group variables also offer less than consistent support for the hypothesis that parties disproportionately recruit members of their support coalitions. While in each of the periods the Democratic coefficient for blacks is higher than that in the Republican equations, the differences are not as dramatic as one might expect. Furthermore, in only one instance is the effect of race statistically significant. In the 164 and 168 elections, Republicans made a concerted effort not to contact blacks.

The role of race is also evident in the estimates for the southern white variable. Here, both parties exhibit changes in their behavior over time. In the 156 and 160 elections, both parties were more likely to target southern whites. However, in the next two elections both parties have negative coefficients, and the Democrats were especially hesitant to contact southern whites at this time. Finally, in more recent elections neither party appears to exhibit a meaningful bias for or against the recruitment of southern whites.

For the religious groups, party targeting is also not quite as anticipated. For Catholics, the parties exhibit little differences. What is more notable is the tendency for both parties over time to enhance their efforts to mobilize these individuals. This trend probably reflects the increased role of Catholics as a swing group in more recent elections. For Jews, the findings offer no clear story. Gender distinctions in the contacting behavior of the parties also follow no apparent pattern. Finally, while Democrats appear more likely to contact members of union households than other individuals (with the coefficient estimate being positive in all periods -although significant only in the most recent period), this does not make them notably different from Republicans.

With respect to their consideration of individuals resources and electoral competitiveness, the parties exhibit some similarities and some differences.

Both the Democrats and Republicans aim recruitment efforts at more educated, wealthier, and older individuals. The Republican coefficients for the income and age variables exceed those for Democrats in each time period, probably reflecting differences in their support bases. However, these inter-party differences are not statistically significant.

Similarly, both parties factor in the closeness of elections in their mobilization decisions, especially in more recent elections. Yet, the Republicans appear

marginally more sensitive than are Democrats to election competitiveness.

Political parties exhibit many characteristics of strategic behavior when contacting citizens. Because mobilization efforts are most often designed to benefit candidates in elections, parties target individuals with higher underlying propensities for political participation. Thus, both Democrats and Republicans are more likely to recruit richer, more educated, and older individuals, as well as individuals who have previously voted. Parties also seek to maximize the impact of their contacts by targeting individuals who may, by virtue of their social situations, be able to mobilize fellow citizens.

In addition to personal characteristics, parties consider election competitiveness in their mobilization decisions, devoting more resources to areas in which contests are closer. The logic of mobilization outlined above also posited that parties consider the likelihood that potential targets for mobilization will support their party rather than the opposition. So, while both parties, for example, should devote disproportionate attention to richer individuals, this emphasis might be especially pronounced for Republicans due to the higher levels of support they enjoy from upper income groups. Similarly, the parties were expected to mobilize other members of their support coalitions on the basis of race, religion, gender, and union affiliation considerations. The findings here offer relatively weak support for such behavior.

Differences between the parties with regard to the group membership variables are generally in the direction anticipated, but the differences are quite modest. Furthermore, looking at each of the parties separately indicates that in the overwhelming majority of cases, neither party’s contacting efforts were significantly influenced by group membership. These findings are unanticipated in the theoretical model, and I speculate that parties may often attempt not to expend resources contacting groups very likely or very unlikely to vote for their candidates.

Although focusing contacting efforts on likely supporters is not consistently apparent with regard to social group membership, parties do seem to be more strategic in this regard at times. For example, as the Democrats became identified as the champions of the civil rights cause in the 160s and southern politics underwent a transformation, both parties devoted more attention to southern states. However, the parties did not mirror one another in their efforts, with Republican contacting being directed more toward whites and Democratic mobilization aimed at blacks.

Consideration of likely party support in contacting efforts also appears when one considers the role of party identification and previous voting behavior. Particularly in recent elections, and especially for Democrats, the parties tend to focus their efforts on individuals they reasonably feel will vote for their candidates. Differences across time and parties in the influence of these variables further underscore the dynamic nature of party contacting. While both parties engaged in significant recruitment of individuals identifying with their opponents during the upheavals of the 160s, neither has been as quick to do so in the past thirty years. This suggests that party systems in flux may encourage conversion efforts while stable periods of party competition promote mobilization of one’s own supporters. Emphasis on mobilization might be even more pronounced in systems, like that in place since 17, with low voter turnout. More generally, political parties should be expected to adapt to changes in the electoral environment and the findings here suggest that such adaptation occurs.

Parties adapt to changes in the electoral environment because they aim to win elections. As part of this effort, they use resources to mobilize citizens. Even in times of “weak” parties, substantial numbers of individuals are directly contacted by at least one major political party, and, in the most recent presidential elections, both the Democrats and Republicans have dramatically increased their contacting rates. While the parties contact individuals out of self-interest, their efforts do have the effect of promoting citizen participation.

Thus, at the same time that party contacting may worsen inequalities due to the consideration of socioeconomic status and previous participation in parties’ behavior. Contacting may contribute to the legitimacy of the political system, an especially important function in a period of low turnout.

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