A tie or identification with a party here means the phenomenon that citizens may develop a stable long-term affection for political parties. This relationship is often already developed during adolescence. This type of loyalty has a rose-tinted spectacles effect: it puts political candidates and issues of a person’s “own” party in a beneficial light and increases the likelihood of voting for that party in upcoming elections.

While the two-party system in the US makes it likely for citizens to either identify as a Democrat or a Republican, this is not necessarily true for European multi-party systems.
For more than 50 years, identifications with political parties have been surveyed in Germany. After a peak in the 1970s and 80s, the following years showed a decreasing number of people feeling tied to a certain party. Nevertheless – and this is often forgotten when discussing changes of heart among voters – the majority of voters still feel an inherent sympathy for a party. Previous surveys in Germany, however, only asked for a single party to which respondents felt connected, ignoring the possibility of multiple political hearts beating in one chest.

The political system in Germany provides good conditions for the development of stable ties with a party. Compared to other European states, the political system in Germany is relatively stable, which indicates a quality democracy and minimizes the influence of extremist groups. Aside from fringes among each other, the German political parties theoretically and practically have enough common ground to form coalitions. In contrast to other countries, there are no massive gaps or insurmountable conflicts between parties. The consequence is that there is often only little difference between the parties, which is why electoral campaigns are hardly polarizing and often boring.

Exactly these political experiences lead to voters developing sympathies not with one but with several parties. To survey these multiple ties, we have developed, validated and integrated a special measuring instrument into the GESIS panel, a representative survey among German citizens (read more in this post: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17457289.2018.1466785?journalCode=fbep20). The result was the following allocation.

Multiple ties with political parties in Germany

Little more than 40 percent of respondents do not have ties with any political party. Ties with a single party are especially prevalent for the conservative CDU/CSU, meaning that it likely has the most loyal followers. Close to 30 percent of eligible voters (and more than 50 percent of those identifying with a party) have ties with multiple parties. There is hence a notable number of German citizens who identify with multiple parties. This phenomenon is more common with parties within the same political camp than with parties across camps: Close to 5 percent feel tied to CDU/CSU and FDP (liberals), while more than 6 percent profoundly sympathize with SPD (social democrats) and the Greens. Only 2.7 percent of respondents said they sympathized with both major parties, CDU/CSU and SPD.

Other factors aside, voters with ties to multiple parties are exposed to contrary influences resulting from these ties: wearing several pairs of rose-tinted spectacles can be confusing and cause a headache. In order to live up to this complexity, citizens will need the respective cognitive skills and motivation. In fact, the development of ties with multiple parties – at least within one political – is significantly fostered by formal education and political interest as facets of cognitive mobilization. Highly educated people and those strongly interested in politics are more likely to be tied to multiple parties than less educated or politically disinterested people.

Contextual factors also play an important role in the development of ties with multiple parties, especially belonging to large conflicting social groups. These are usually tightly connected to specific political parties. Going back to the example of SPD and CDU/CSU, ties with both parties are more likely developed by citizens who are union members as well as frequent churchgoers.

The fact that ties with multiple parties do exist has vast consequences for political competition between parties. Against common assumption, parties cannot place their bets on regular voters alone, with the number of people feeling tied to a single party being rather low. Therefore, parties will have to solicit voters more strongly and clearly distinguish their political programs from other parties’. At the same time, electoral campaigns must not become too polarizing as people with ties to multiple parties might be scared off. This results in a rather consensus-based approach to politics which offers much room for projection and attack, especially to the far-right AfD as a new political force.

For further information please contact:

Dr. Martin Schultze

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