By: Rachael Andrews

In the upcoming 2020 presidential elections, some American voters will vote for a political party, while many others will vote against one, reflecting the two distinct types of partisanship that have emerged in American politics. Partisanship – or one’s partisan identity – can be thought of  as either positive or negative. Positive partisan identity refers to the conventional idea that an American voter identifies as a Republican or Democrat because they feel strongly connected to that group. In contrast, negative partisan identity is grounded in a disdain for the other group. 

“Not being a Democrat” or “not being a Republican” is a more significant part of a voter’s self identity than any positive identification with their party. “This is why so many Americans appear to feel lukewarm about their own party but they still feel deeply hostile towards the opposing party,” says Dr. Alexa Bankert, assistant professor of political science, who has developed a measure of negative partisanship to capture its effects on Americans’ vote choice.

Importantly, negative partisanship, rather than positive partisanship,  impacts voters attitudes towards  bipartisan legislation. “This is both good and bad news,” Bankert says. “The good news is that you can be a strong supporter of your party without perceiving the opposing party as a threat to the nation’s well-being,” Bankert continues. “The bad news is that we have seen an increase in negative partisanship among the American electorate, especially as we have become more polarized in the past few decades. As a consequence, partisans increasingly view any form of bipartisanship as a betrayal of their team.”

Bankert says that the 2016 election may have been a catalyst for this divide. The vast majority of Republicans voted for President Trump, while the vast majority of Democrats voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “In that sense, 2016 was nothing unusual, however, 2016 was slightly different because neither presidential candidate was met with a lot of enthusiasm among their supporters,” Bankert adds. “Negative partisanship might have been a stronger motivator of both choices in 2016. For example, there were Republicans who felt quite ambivalent about Trump but they dislike the Democratic party to such an extent that they nonetheless voted for Trump.” 

There has been a notable increase in negative partisanship among Democrats in the years since 2016. 

“The Democratic Party, as you can probably tell, is struggling internally to find what I would call their ideological core, and this struggle can really dampen the party’s effort to mobilize their base,” Bankert considers. “However, many Democrats right now report such a strong disdain for Trump that they are willing to put aside ideological conflicts for the sake of being a united front for the 2020 election.”

“This is why we have so many progressive Democrats who report an intention to vote for former Vice President Joe Biden even though he is the establishment candidate.”

Bankert’s next project will focus on negative partisanship among independent voters, or those who do not feel attached to any political party. The project seeks to address whether negative partisanship can operate independently from positive partisanship, and if so, how will it impact voter turnout and persuasion during election campaigns. 

“I want to focus on a segment of the American electorate that has been overlooked in political science research for quite some time,” Bankert says. 

As for the 2020 election, Bankert predicts that Republican voters will be much more driven by their positive attachment to their own party because their party is in power and they want to stay connected to that power. “When your own group is in power, it is much more likely that you feel more positively  towards that group even if you do not fully agree with the group’s actions,” Bankert describes.

For Democrats, Bankert thinks that it is likely that there will be an increase in the power of negative partisan identity in driving their decision to turn out and vote. 

“They are so unhappy with the current administration, that even if they disagree with Biden, they will still vote for him because he is the only alternative to another 4 years of President Trump in the White House,” Bankert concludes.