For the last twenty-five years or so, party identification has been said to be in decline in Germany. And yet, those two parties which are most closely associated with traditional concepts of partisanship, i.e. the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) on the right and the Social Democrats (SPD) on the left – are once more jointly governing Germany, with the CDU/CSU coming tantalisingly close to an outright majority in parliament. This paper tries to shed some light by re-visiting the major stations of the debate before considering new longitudinal data and finally turning to the 2013 Bundestag election.
The question whether Michigan-style identifications do exist in West Europe, where politics was shaped along the lines of ideologies and cleavages, was hotly debated in the 1970s (see Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck, 1984 for a useful summary). However, towards the end of the decade a consensus emerged that the concept could indeed be transplanted to the polities on the old continent including Germany, conditional on an operationalisation that caters for multi-party systems (Falter, 1977). Such an operationalisation has been employed since the first Politbarometer surveys (dating back to the late 1970s) and has been replicated in Germany’s general social survey (ALLBUS), in the national election studies, and in countless other opinion surveys.
Yet, the late 1970s may very well have marked the height of partisanship in Germany. Mutually re-enforcing processes of socio-economic modernisation, secularisation, and value-change began to undermine the cleavage base of the German party system, which in turn facilitated the rise of the Green party in the 1980s. Moreover, according to one very influential account (Dalton, 1984), the expansion of higher education and the increase in the availability of political information reduced the heuristic value of party identification as a device that reduces cognitive costs.
The political crises of the 1980s and early 1990s, on the other hand, had very little effect on levels of party identification in Germany: The decline in partisanship was never sudden but rather glacial and concentrated in those social groups whose loyalties have shaped the modern German party system: working class voters, catholics, and churchgoers more generally (Arzheimer, 2006).
More recently, Dassonneville, Hooghe, and Vanhoutte (2012) have argued that the decline in partisanship has accelerated and is now most prevalent amongst voters with low levels of formal education, which could in the long run lead to an underrepresentation of vulnerable socio-economic groups in the German party system. Moreover, a positive correlation between formal education on the one hand and party identification on the other goes against the grain of Dalton’s original argument about cognitive mobilisation and dealignment (see also Albright, 2009 and Dalton, 2014).
Nevertheless, unlike many other studies on dealignment in Germany (but see Schmitt-Beck and Weick, 2001 and Arzheimer and Schoen, 2005) Dassonneville, Hooghe, and Vanhoutte’s work is based on the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), an annual survey of more than 12,000 households that has been running since 1984. While the SOEP provides unrivalled insights into the individual dynamics of partisanship, it also suffers from a number of drawbacks. First and foremost, after three decades in the field, panel mortality is a serious issue. While the SOEP team claims that they can compensate for attrition by recruiting new households, the structure of the data set and the attached weights have become unwieldy to say the least. Second, the research agenda of the SOEP is primarily driven by economists. Its questionnaire contains very items with genuinely political content and therefore lacks the priming context that is provided by ordinary opinion surveys. Finally, field work for the SOEP is usually drawn out over a lengthy period of time, whereas polling for other surveys that are used to study partisanship is either continuous or focused on campaigns, i.e. periods of intense political mobilisation.
While none of these issues rule out the SOEP as a valuable data source for analysing dealignment in general and issues of attitude stability at the micro level in particular, the SOEP is less than ideally suited for plotting the long-term levels of partisanship in Germany, or its importance in any given election. Therefore, the next section will rely on the monthly Politbarometer survey series to chart the decline of partisanship, while the penultimate section will make use of the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES) to assess the relevance of party identification for voters in the 2013 Bundestag election.
Forschungsgruppe Wahlen have been tracking German political attitudes with their monthly Politbarometer surveys since the golden age of party identification in the late 1970s. The Politbarometer follows a classic repeated cross-sectional survey design, where each group of interviewees is sampled independently and thought to be representative for the German population in the respective year and month.
Although Forschungsgruppe is a commercial operation, their raw data are made available for secondary analysis after an embargo of two to three years. Previous analyses of these data for the 1977-2002 period have shown that in line with theories of secular dealignment, party identification in Western Germany declines fairly slowly and steadily at a rate of less than one percentage point per year (Arzheimer, 2006).
Since then, Forschungsgruppe has released ten years’ worth of new data, which cover the upheaval caused by the ‘Agenda 2010’ following the 2002 election and the onset of the second Grand Coalition (2005) as well as the merger between the Eastern PDS and the Western WASG (2007) and the short but meteoric rise of the FDP (2009).
Figure 1: Partisanship in West Germany, 1977-2012
Source: own calculation based on Politbarometer series, ZA2391
The series is rather noisy with a standard deviation of 5.4 percentage points. This is to be expected, as sampling error alone should result in a standard deviation of roughly 1.5 percentage points, disregarding any additional error due to multistage sampling. Even after applying a moving average smoother using a five-month (2 1 2) window, the series is rather jittery (see Figure 1), with some of the noise probably being the result of campaign effects (the diamond-shaped symbols mark the dates of federal elections). However, it also seems clear that the downward trend of the 1980s and 1990s has slowed down considerably in the new millenium, with the average yearly attrition rate falling well below 0.5 percentage points.
As the micro data are readily available, it is possible to model the decline in partisanship directly without resorting to the aggregated time series (see Arzheimer, 2006). A simple descriptive model would start with a logistic regression of holding a party id (a dichotomous variable) on calendar time, controlling for campaign effects. For simplicity’s sake, only federal elections and Land elections in Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemberg, and North Rhine-Westphalia – the three most populous states which are collectively home to more than half of the West German population — were considered, and campaigns were assumed to uniformly run for three months, including the month in which the election was held. Logistic regression enforces an S-shaped link between partisanship and its predictors, which given the empirical distribution of party identifications in the sample (between 59 and 84 per cent) will result in a nearly linear relationship. To accommodate the apparent non-linear decline of partisanship, following Royston and Sauerbrei (2008) a number of fractional polynomial transformations of calendar time were included in a bivariate model (not shown), with an additional square root transform providing the best fit.
Since the purpose of the model is descriptive, only two variables were included to account for changes in the composition of the population that occurred over the 35-year period: Formal education (people who were educated beyond Mittlere Reife vs. everyone else), and age. As outlined in section 2, formal education is interesting in itself, but it also serves as a useful proxy for not belonging to the working class and not attending church frequently, rendering a durable affiliation with either the SPD or the CDU/CSU much less likely.
Age, or rather the time at which person was born will affect partisanship in two ways. On the one hand, partisanship is partly a habit, which is reinforced over the course of one’s life (Converse, 1969). Therefore, older voters should be more likely to identify with a party. On the other hand, dealignment theory suggests that independent of individual age and across the span of their lives, members of younger cohorts are less likely to identify with a party compared to those who were socialised into the largely stable German party system of the 1960s and 1970s.
Life cycle and cohort effects are notoriously difficult to separate (Oppenheim Mason et al., 1973). Because age is only recorded in a categorised fashion in the Politbarometer surveys anyway, no such attempt was made. Instead, respondents were split into three broad categories (under 35, 35 to 60, and over 60) to control for the slow but momentous demographic changes Germany is undergoing. Finally, the effects of age and education were allowed to vary over time to account for generational replacement and the new relationship between education and partisanship postulated by Dassonneville, Hooghe, and Vanhoutte (2012).
Although the additional complexity introduced by the interaction terms is a setback, model comparisons (not shown) based on the Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) demonstrate that such a fully interactive model fits the data much better than either a non-interactive variant or a model that regresses partisanship on calendar time and campaign effects alone.
Figure 2: Estimated overall levels of partisanship in West Germany, 1977-2002 (adjusted predictions at representative values (APR))
Source: own calculation based on Politbarometer series, ZA2391. Predictions derived from parameter estimates shown in Table 1.
|Age: 35-59 × Sqrt(Time)||0.317∗∗∗|
|Age: 60- × Sqrt(Time)||0.299∗∗∗|
|Age: 35-59 × Time||-0.00747∗∗∗|
|Age: 60- × Time||-0.00579∗∗∗|
|Educ: high × Sqrt(Time)||-0.0210|
|Educ: high × Time||0.00134|
Table 1: Micro Model of Partisanship in West Germany, 1977-2012
Source: own calculation based on Politbarometer series, ZA2391.
Table 1 shows the results. However, since the substantive meaning of logit coefficients is hard to grasp, particularly in the face of additional non-linearities and interactions, the interpretation will focus on a graphical representation. Figure 2 shows that the decline of partisanship has slowed down considerably indeed. In theory, anything could have happened in the nine months between the current end of the time series and the election, but the graph makes it abundantly clear that dealignment has effectively halted during the last decade under study. The estimated attrition rate for the five-year period from December 2007 to December 2012 is a mere 0.8 percentage points, just over the estimated yearly average for the 1980s.
Figure 3: Estimated levels of partisanship in West Germany by formal education, 1977-2002 (adjusted predictions at representative values (APR))
Source: own calculation based on Politbarometer series, ZA2391. Predictions derived from parameter estimates shown in Table 1.
Including education, age, and their interaction with time in the model makes it possible to look into group-specific trends in dealignment. Figure 3 shows that partisanship has fallen much more rapidly amongst those with higher formal qualifications, leading to a gap that has become increasingly wider in recent years, as dealignment has essentially petered out amongst those with higher levels of educational attainment. Yet, dealignment has slowed down for the lower attainment group, too: The change from e.g. 2000 to 2010 is much less dramatic than the development for the 1990 to 2000 period, hinting once more at stabilisation on a lower level.
Figure 4: Estimated levels of partisanship in West Germany by age group, 1977-2002 (adjusted predictions at representative values (APR))
Source: own calculation based on Politbarometer series, ZA2391. Predictions derived from parameter estimates shown in Table 1.
One intriguing aspect of this pattern is that levels of formal education are negatively correlated with age as a result of the ongoing expansion of education. Figure 4 offers a more direct look into the age-specific trajectories of dealignment. One first insight is that – at least according to the underlying model – age did not matter much in the late 1970s and early 1980s but quickly became a factor over the course of this decade as younger respondents were increasingly less likely than their older compatriots to report an identification with a party. Relevant segments of the new cohorts entering the political system either never acquired such an identification or did not retain it at the same rate as their predecessors. Given how steep the estimated decline of their partisanship is compared to the other groups, it seems safe to assume that the dealignment of the 1980s and mid-1990s that reduced the number of partisans by nearly a quarter must have been driven largely by this group.
However, once more the estimated attrition rate in this group began fall appreciably around the turn of the century. Moreover, nearly everyone who belonged to this group in the 1980s had now moved on to the next age band, which exhibits a nearly linear pattern of decline that is currently steeper than that of the youngest group, although levels of partisanship are still noticeably higher.
Finally, the over sixties, who began at roughly the same level as the middle age group, did outstrip them in terms of partisans by the mid-1990s. Levels of partisanship have been essentially stable in this group for more than a decade now. Once more one must keep in mind that by the early 2000s, everyone who was in the middle group in the 1980s had moved on to this upper age band.
Demographic changes that the mean age of people belonging to an age group will somewhat fluctuate over time: From the 1940s until the mid-1960s, almost every birth cohort was bigger than the one before, but since then, this pattern has been reversed. Yet, even accounting for this effect and for the rising life expectancy, the changes in the impact of age on party identification are too big to be the result of stable life cycle effects. They point either at massive shift in what it means for partisanship to be young, middle-aged, or old, or, equivalently, at substantial cohort effects.
One final aspect that must be considered is the relative size of the three age groups. During the first five years of polling, 29 per cent of all respondents were under 35, while 26 per cent of those interviewed were older than 60. For the 2008-2012 period, this balance has been reversed. The share of older citizens has risen to just under 30 per cent, and only 18 per cent of all respondents are younger than 35. Voters aged 35 to 59 currently make up 52 per cent of the sample, but their share is now peaking, while the oldest group is rapidly growing and already stands at 33 per cent in the 2012 data. In essence, this means that dealignment in Germany is slowed down by demographic change, because the combined shares of middle aged and older voters, who are more likely to be partisans, is growing.
Either way, party identification has neither collapsed nor withered away in West Germany. Assessing the state and trajectory of party identification in the former East Germany is less straightforward. First, theories of dealignment do not apply because there should not have been any alignment in the first place. After all, Easterners had not been exposed to the West German party system before 1990 and, more generally, had had no experience with free elections since the (partially free) Land elections of 1946. While it has been argued that many Easterners had access to West German TV and hence could form “quasi-attachments” to West German parties (Bluck and Kreikenbom, 1991), these attachments can hardly have been comparable to Michigan-type identifications. After all, the latter are the result of socialisation effects in the family and intermediary associations, exposure to fellow partisans, party members and party communication, first-hand experience of policies and policy outcomes, and last not least the habit-forming experience of repeatedly voting for one’s party. Accordingly, the number of self-reported partisans in the East was lower than in the West all through the 1990s, while attachments were weaker and less stable.
Figure 5: Partisanship in East Germany, 1991-2012
Source: own calculation based on various Politbarometer samples
Second, the East German subsamples of the Politbarometer poll are often relatively small. Until 1995, East Germans were massively overrepresented in the polls: Essentially, Easterners were sampled separately and in numbers approaching those for West Germany (roughly 1000 per month and region) to account for the idiosyncratic and very fluent nature of public opinion in the post-unification East. From 1996 to 1998, Forschungsgruppe used a single sampling frame, interviewing about 1000 respondents per month in total. In 1999, Forschungsgruppe reinstated separate regional subsamples of roughly equal size, but from the early 2000s on, they considerably reduced Eastern sample sizes for most months, boosting it occasionally to cover election campaigns. As a result, the Eastern time series is very noisy even after applying the moving average smoother (Figure 5).
Despite these fluctuations, it is clear that the massive decline of self-reported identifications in the early 1990s was a temporary phenomenon. From the mid-1990s on, the number of identifiers moved up, although in fits and starts. This pattern is at least compatible with a process of social-political learning, during which East Germans became familiar with the party system and wider liberal-democratic political system. Then, for the last decade or so, levels of partisanship in East Germany have been by and large stable in the 55-to-65 per cent range, roughly five percentage points below West German levels.
Given the relatively small East German sample sizes (particularly for younger and highly educated voters), the comparatively short time series, and the absence of any clear trends, I refrain from modelling developments in subgroups. At this stage, the more important point to note is that partisanship was clearly still an important at the time of the 2013 election. While the group of non-partisans is large, in both regions, more than half of the voters report a party identification, and there is no sign of a sudden and imminent decline.
Just because respondents report identifications, they need not necessarily be politically meaningful. In this section, a simple model of voting in the 2013 election is presented in order to assess the political relevance of party identification.
Modelling electoral choice in multi-party systems is not entirely straightforward. Perhaps the most commonly employed statistical model is the multinomial logit (MNL). One problem of the MNL, however, is the large number of parameters which must be estimated, because each possible outcome (minus a reference category) is given its own set of coefficients: For k parties and l variables, the total number of parameters is (k − 1) × (l + 1). Even if CSU voters are lumped together with voters of the CDU, and non-voters and voters of “other” parties are disregarded, there were are at least five relevant choices (Christian Democrats, SPD, FDP, Greens, and the Left) that need to be considered, so that even simple models become unwieldy very quickly.
Fortunately, there is another option. The Conditional Logit Model (CLM, Alvarez and Nagler, 1998) has only a single parameter for the effects of each variable that varies across alternatives within voters. This includes many variables which are deemed to affect electoral behaviour: evaluations of candidates, policies, and parties. The CLM resembles the MNL in that it can be extended to also incorporate variables that are constant across alternatives (Long and Freese, 2006, p. 307), like more general attitudes, or socio-demographic variables, but for these, the number of parameters is once more proportional to k − 1.
|Union × Tax vs Welfare||-0.00368||-0.121|
|FDP × Tax vs Welfare||0.259∗||0.220|
|B90Gruene × Tax vs Welfare||-0.0118||0.224|
|Left × Tax vs Welfare||-0.0122||-0.0614|
|Union × Immigration||-0.0750||-0.0729|
|FDP × Immigration||-0.0658||-0.176|
|B90Gruene × Immigration||-0.124||-0.260|
|Left × Immigration||-0.151||-0.379∗∗|
Table 2: Micro Model of Electoral Choice in the 2013 Bundestag Election (East vs. West)
Source: own calculation based on GLES 2013 pre-election cross-section, ZA5700. “Observations” are observed choices. The number of cases is 888 for the West and 206 for the East. Standard errors take into account the nesting of choices within electors and the complex survey design, including the weights supplied by the GLES team.
Table 2 shows the estimates for the parameters of a very simple conditional logistic model of electoral choice in the 2013 election. Data come from the pre-election cross-sectional survey component of the German Longitudinal Election Study (GLES). The model itself is built around the Michigan triad of party identification, candidate evaluations, and issue considerations. The latter are operationalised in multiple ways. For the “ideological distance” measure, respondents were asked to place themselves and the main parties on a standard left-right scale to gauge the general agreement between voters’ preferences and the parties’ policy proposals. To get a more rounded impression of the impact of policy considerations, preferences on two more specific positional issues that were deemed to be important in the 2013 election were included as well: lower taxes vs. more welfare spending, and immigration.1
While respondents were asked for their perceptions of party positions on these issues so that alternative-specific measures of distance could be calculated, the number of missing values for these items is quite high. Hence, only voters personal preferences regarding immigration and tax/welfare enter the model. Including such case-specific variables in a CLM of electoral choice requires one to include a series of party specific constants and interaction terms (Long and Freese, 2006, p. 305), which pick up the effect of a change in the case-specific variables on the chance of choosing the respective party vs. some arbitrary baseline alternative (in this case, the SPD).
To account for any differences between East and West Germany, parameters were estimated separately for both regions.2 While the interpretation is slightly complicated by the presence of multiple interaction terms, it is clear from Table 2 that such differences played a role in the 2013 election. To see why this is the case, consider a voter who is both in favour of raising welfare spending (0) and facilitating immigration (0). For these persons, all interaction terms drop out of the equation so that the constant reflects the odds of voting for the respective party vs. voting for the SPD. In the West, the odds seem to favour the Left (e0.528≈ 1.7), but the coefficient is not statistically different from zero. In the East, however, the Left’s advantage is significant, and massive (e2.077≈ 8). Even for Eastern voters who hold a more centrist position (5) on the immigration scale, the Left will be slightly more attractive, ceteris paribus, whereas in the West, the balance is tilting towards the SPD.
While these differences are certainly interesting, the main concern of this section is the role of party identification. From the first line of Table 2, it can be gleaned that in both regions, identifying with a party has a very strong effect on the odds of actually voting for this party even after controlling for specific issue positions, general ideological distance, and candidate evaluations.
The latter two do certainly matter, too. Because of the range of the underlying scales (0-10 and 1-11, respectively), their potential effect is even bigger than that of party identification. But in practice, the perceived ideological distances between voters and parties are relatively small, with a median of 2 points and a mean of 2.3. Candidate evaluations display more variation with a mean of 6.2 and a median of 6, implying that a plausible candidate could possibly compensate for a lack of attachment to the party.
Yet, one should bear in mind that for candidate evaluations (and ideological distances), only the differential is relevant, because all candidates will appeal to some degree. If a voter likes or dislikes all candidates in equal measure, their joint effect on her voting behaviour is nil. For the average voter, the standard deviation of candidate evaluations is just 1.9 points, suggesting that in many cases, the differential and hence the candidate effect will be considerably smaller than the potential effect. Having a party identification, on the other hand, will be definition benefit only a single party, to whom the maximal potential effect will apply.
One intuitive (though potentially problematic, see Long and Freese, 2006, p. 111) approach towards assessing the relevance of party identifications is to compare actual electoral choices to those expected given the data and the parameter estimates. In both areas, about 85 per cent of voters are classified correctly.3 However, simply assuming that those who hold an identification will vote in accordance with it works just as well, with a 85 per cent of the subgroup correctly classified in the West and 92 per cent in East. Accordingly, the match between party identification and model-derived predictions is almost perfect (98 per cent) for identifiers.
This shows that at least in this election, candidate evaluations and policy concerns were rarely able to offset the effect of longstanding loyalties amongst those who have an identification and turned out to vote. Nonetheless, they will shape voting decisions amongst the slowly growing group of those who do not identify with a party.
In German Politics, one of the most interesting developments in recent years has been the breakaway of the WASG from the SPD following the enactment of the “Agenda 2010” reforms, and the ensuing PDS/WASG merger (Hough, Koß, and Olsen, 2007). As a result, the left camp is now more fragmented than the right, at least for the time being. Moreover, the (ongoing) conflict over the “Agenda” and its legacy has re-asserted the importance of distributional issues (which were over-shadowed by moral questions, at least in many academic analyses) for party competition.
The question of whether this new divide within the left camp has already become entrenched in the guise of (new) party identifications has rarely been addressed. After all, it is not implausible that the vote for the Left (particularly in the West) could be driven by policy concerns alone or even by more generalised “protest”.
Yet, the short answer to the question is that this does not seem to be the case. Admittedly, voters of the Left party position themselves significantly closer to the left end of the political spectrum than voters of the SPD or the Greens. This even holds when the analysis is restricted to the subsample of voters who self-identify as leftists by reporting position on the continuum that is clearly left of the centre (4 or less). Moreover, voters of the Greens are slightly more in favour of immigration than voters of the other two parties. Again, this holds for both regions, and for the general population and the leftist subsample (not shown as a table).
|SPD × East||1.606∗|
|B90Gruene × East||1.987∗|
|Left × East||1.296|
Table 3: Leftist Voters’ Positions on Taxes/Welfare Spending as a Function of Party Choice and Region
Source: own calculation based on GLES 2013 pre-election cross-section, ZA5700. The size of the subpopulation is 333. Standard errors take into account the complex survey design, including the weights supplied by the GLES team.
|no/other × West||7.003||(0.400)|
|no/other × East||4.564||(0.436)|
|SPD × West||4.474||(0.332)|
|SPD × East||3.641||(0.280)|
|B90Gruene × West||4.137||(0.315)|
|B90Gruene × East||3.685||(0.525)|
|Left × West||4.588||(0.540)|
|Left × East||3.444||(0.349)|
Table 4: Leftist Voters’ Positions on Taxes/Welfare Spending (Adjusted Predictions at Representative Values)
Source: own calculation based on GLES 2013 pre-election cross-section, ZA5700. Adjusted predictions derived from model presented in Table 3. The size of the subpopulation is 333. Standard errors take into account the complex survey design, including the weights supplied by the GLES team.
But on the crucial tax/spending issue, there are hardly any differences between the supporters of the three parties. Here, the real difference is that between Easterners and Westerners, and this gap is particularly pronounced amongst those who consider themselves to be left-wing. Table 4 lists the adjusted predictions derived from a simple linear model (Table 3) that regresses tax/spending preferences amongst leftist (self-placement on scale points 1-4) voters on region and electoral choice. Lines 1-4 shows national estimates by party choice. Clearly, the differences between the respective supporters of the SPD, the Greens, and the Left are small and statistically insignificant, whereas any other voters position themselves more than two points closer to the “lower taxes” pole of the scale on average.
Perhaps even more striking are the estimates for the overall difference between East Germans and West Germans given in the next two lines. Although all respondents in this subsample consider themselves to be on the left, Western respondents lean slightly towards the “lower taxes/fewer benefits” pole of the continuum. Eastern respondents, on the other hand, position themselves 1,6 points closer to the “higher taxes/more benefits” pole.
The rest of the table breaks down the preferences of leftist along party lines and region. Because of the small sample sizes, the regional differences within electorates are not statistically significant, but the clearly show that within each region, the voters of the three parties hold broadly similar views on taxation and welfare.
Table 5: Party identification of leftist voters in West Germany by vote choice
Source: own calculation based on GLES 2013 pre-election cross-section, ZA5700. The size of the subpopulation is 254. Standard errors take into account the complex survey design, including the weights supplied by the GLES team.
While policies seem hence to matter less than one would have expected, party identification once more plays a prominent role. Table 5 shows the party affiliation of Western leftist voters by electoral choice. From the main diagonal, it can be seen that between 72 and 85 per cent report a party identification that is congruent with their electoral choice. Crucially, this also holds for the Left party, which is still relatively new by West German standards. Here, 73 per cent of the voters claim to be longstanding supporters. Although the sampling error is relatively large for this small group, one can be confident that more than half of the Left’s Western voters are identifiers.
In the East, the results are virtually identical (not shown as a table). Flipping the perspective demonstrates that similarly high numbers of identifiers vote for the “correct” party, and again, this holds for both regions (not shown as a table). Taken together, these findings suggest that the fragmentation of the left electorate has indeed become entrenched. Obviously, this does not bode well for any attempts of the SPD to win (back) voters from the Left.
The notion of party decline in Western countries is as old as the post-war political order (Reiter, 1989). But at least for the old Federal Republic, and then for the Western states during the first decade after unification, there is no evidence of any sudden collapse of the party loyalties. Instead, the available data from the Politbarometer series point to an almost glacial process of dealignment that is driven by social and generational change (Arzheimer, 2006).
This article expands on earlier contributions by first extending the study of the Politbarometer series by a full decade to the whole 1977-2012 period. The most important finding from this analysis is that dealignment in Western Germany has slowed down even further, coming to a virtual halt in recent years.
One reason for this is the emerging positive relationship between formal education and partisanship, coupled with the ongoing expansion of the German education system. This positive effect of education (which confirms some of Dassonneville, Hooghe, and Vanhoutte (2012)’s finding using a less idiosyncratic data base) is both unexpected and remarkable, because it contradicts classic cleavage theory as well as the original argument about cognitive mobilisation. Whether it hails a new age of “cognitive partisans” (Dalton, 2014, p. 140) remains to be seen, although the results are certainly suggestive.
Demographic changes play an important part, too. While it is not quite clear whether this is primarily a result of life-cycle or of cohort effects, late-middle-aged voters and younger pensioners are more likely to be partisans than younger voters, whose share of the electorate is rapidly shrinking.
Turning from the longitudinal to a cross-sectional perspective, it could further be demonstrated that in both East and West Germany, party identifications are a very strong predictor of voting intentions, even if the other elements of the Ann-Arbor-Model – candidate evaluations and issues orientations – are controlled for in various ways. Those voters who identify with a party rarely report diverging voting intentions so that issues and candidates matter almost exclusively for the apartisans.
Although the analysis was restricted to the pre-election survey to avoid any post-hoc rationalisations on behalf of the respondents, the spectre of endogeneity obviously looms large in any such model. After all, it is reasonable to assume that at least some respondents cannot distinguish between their current voting intentions and any long-term loyalties they may or may not harbour. However, measures of candidate evaluations and issue orientations are equally or even more so prone to contamination by voting intentions. Therefore, the estimate for the relative importance of party identification should be unaffected even if the absolute size of its effect may be overstated.
Finally, a detailed analysis of leftist voters interviewed for the GLES showed that even in the (small) subgroup of Western voters of the Left party, most respondents claimed to be identifiers. Again, this is a significant and largely unexpected finding. The formation of the WASG and ultimately the WASG/PDS merger were triggered by the SPD’s shift to the right on social and economic policy, yet the leftists amongst the voters of the SPD and of the Left take broadly similar positions on these issues while claiming to identify with their respective parties. This suggests that the fragmentation of the left camp has become entrenched and cannot be easily overcome by another programmatic shift of the SPD.
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1Taxes/spending: “And what is your own opinion regarding taxes and social welfare services? 0 – lower taxes, even if this means a reduction in the benefits offered by the social state; 10 – lower taxes, even if this means a reduction in the benefits offered by the social state”. Immigration: “And what is your opinion regarding immigration? 0 – Immigration should be facilitated; 10 – immigration should be restricted”.
2Obviously, it would have been possible to estimate a single model for all of Germany by including appropriate interaction terms, but this would have introduced an additional layer of complexity.
3The correction presented by Long and Freese (2006) yields a slightly lower rate of 72 per cent.