Beyond the Ballot Box: Partisan Identity and Political Action

By Catherine Allen-West

Dr. Leonie Huddy, political scientist at Stony Brook University, spoke at the annual Miller-Converse Lecture, sponsored by the Center for Political Studies in March. The series is the University of Michigan’s preeminent lecture series on American Electoral Politics and honors the legacy of CPS Founder Warren Miller and former CPS Director Philip Converse.

Huddy studies political behavior in the United States and elsewhere through the lens of intergroup relations, with a special focus on gender, race and ethnic relations. Her presentation examined how party identification in the U.S. is tied to action-oriented emotions that drive political behavior.

The 2016 U.S. Presidential Election unfolded against a backdrop of extreme party polarization, a trend that has been growing for many years. “We’re in a time of intense partisan emotion,” Dr. Huddy said.

During any administration, political polarization can impede success, and extreme partisanship all but eliminates the possibility of compromise. Huddy contends that partisanship isn’t all bad though. In fact, in doing her research, she has found that partisanship actually motivates political action. Essentially, the more partisan the person, the more likely they are to take action on a political issue.

“We have been underestimating the level of influence of partisanship has on the outcome of a campaign,” Huddy continued, “the emotion, the reaction, is important for action.”

Political scientists like Huddy are interested in what drives partisanship. One theory is that allegiance to one party over another and the strength of that party identification are born from a stacking of an individual’s various identities, like their race, religion or gender. During her talk, Huddy focused on how gender feeds into partisanship by looking at a more nuanced aspect of gender: feminism.

“Believe it or not, not all women are feminists,” Huddy said, but she argues that feminism has greater resonance for women and drives their partisanship more than it does for men.

Chart showing the effect of feminism on partisanship for men and women.

Chart courtesy of Leonie Huddy.


As political parties look to engage the electorate in future elections, Dr. Huddy suggests that groups embrace the motivational effects of voters’ intense feelings and reactions to issues. When it comes to partisanship, she concluded, “We love it, we hate it, but we can’t live without it.”

Beyond the Ballot Box: Partisan Identity and Political Action