• Olivia Earth

Party Identification & Voting Behaviour

To fully understand the complexities behind voting behaviour we first need to look at party identification and its major features. It is also important to get clarity on the specific models used for comprehending the many elements of voting behaviour for example, the ‘Funnel of Causality” and to learn about why this is a noteworthy and useful methodical tool. In the next few paragraphs we will also consider partisan dealignment and its many implications. To achieve this, we will start by simply defining all of the abstract concepts.

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David Turnley/Corbis – A man votes in South Africa 

Explaining the ‘Funnel of Causality’

When one implements a public survey it is important to take note of the influencing psychological factors, for example, things which could influence voting choices like “issues and attitudes” (Dalton, 2014:183). The ‘Funnel of Causality’ is a logically straightforward voting model which incorporates many different elements. The model when graphically represented has a wide mouth made up of two arms (the opening of the tunnel) on the left hand side and on the right hand side there is a definite point where the two arms meet indicating the voter’s final choice.

Moving from the left to right hand side of the model we are first exposed to the socio-economic conditions that “generate the basic conflicts of interest within society” (Dalton, 2014:184). These conditions influence the next phase of the model indicated by group identities which in turn leads to party attachment. Group identities and questions of value become progressively differentiated between people which streamlines the funnel. This consequently details how voting choices are made and where the relevant influences happen on the wavelength of broad social forces to focused and specific social forces (Dalton, 2014:185).

The ‘Funnel of Causality’ can be seen as a conceptual ingenuity in that its simplicity continues to be used for the organisation of the influencing factors of voting decisions. However, the simplicity of the model can be seen as both a strength and a weakness – it allows one to clearly note the shift of weight to the psychological processes of individual perception but, it fails to openly address the social and political context. Perhaps if it addressed the political context to a greater degree it would lose its simplicity appeal.

All the same, one still needs to identify the “causal relationship among the many factors involved” (Dalton, 2014:185). The factors on the left hand side are furthest away from the final voting choice and are therefore not “proximate” to it. These conditions on the left must be understood in terms of “conditions of society” which are interpreted by the voter through consideration and guides us through the funnel. It is important to note that social characteristics are primarily influential in that they form broad political orientations (Dalton, 2014:185), the orientations which, in turn, influence more nuanced details which lead to the final voting choice.


Figure 1

Defining Party Identification

According to Dr Schulz-Herzenberg (2009:29), party identification can best be described as “an enduring psychological attachment to a political party that guides electoral behaviour. It is also a changeable behaviour”. Party identification is a reference structure used for the understanding of political motives which encompasses an important attitude that influences votes during an election. It is crucial to note that party identification is not equivalent to the final voting decision and is better used as a heuristic tool (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017).

Heuristic tools of measure refer to “experience-based techniques for problem solving” when comprehensive research is impractical but where one needs a “good enough” solution (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017). However, understanding party identification enables one see that it is also a “standing choice or default value for voters, and is a substitute for more complete information about parties and candidates” (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2009:29). People may make lazy decisions during elections because they want to vote for the party that they have always identified with rather than doing research on all the parties’ policies.

Major Features of Party Identification

Party identification, as we discovered with reference to the ‘Funnel of Causality’, is made up of many different elements which have certain influencing powers on an individual’s vote. The main features of party identification can be understood in terms of three approaches; the social approach, the socio-psychological approach and the rational choice approach.

The social approach recognises how social groups play a big function in party identification and how social cleavages help orientate us between our own interests and those of the party. The social groups may consist of race, gender, age, socio-economic status, rural versus urban, religious beliefs etc. (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017). But social cues can be a short cut. One may feel that because they are part of a certain demographic they don’t need to search for a party as they will simply follow what the rest of their demographic is doing. It will also serve us well to note the difference between old and new politics where old politics is right-winged and new politics is left-winged or “post-materialist” (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017). New politics is issue driven which attracts attention from voters with fewer other strong social cues and helps them to make decisions based on the policies of the parties and not prior associations.

On the other hand the soscio-psychological approach details a view where individuals vote on the grounds of loyalty towards a party (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017) – their party identification is strong and has possibly been entrenched for years. Some findings indicate that children start to develop their “partisan orientation” at an early age and that this “early party attachment becomes a reference structure for future political learning” (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017).

And the last approach, rational choice, looks closely at issues and candidates where “issues and attachments give meaning to partisan and social divisions” (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017). To start let’s discuss some general findings – there has been a long-term decline in reliance on party identification and social cues. On the other hand, there has been an increase in issue voting and the importance of the image of the candidate i.e. race, gender etc. Issue voting describes a sophisticated voter who bases their final decision on reason. However many critics say that in mass politics there is a lack of rational voting. Therefore to be an issue voter you must first have an interest in the issue, secondly have an opinion on the issue and lastly have knowledge of your candidate’s opposition party (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017).

Partisan Dealignment

At first it appeared that political parties were “eroding” in certain advanced industrial democracies but it was difficult to be sure that it was due to party dealignment because it correlated with many other trends and “partisan changes between elections” (Dalton, 2014:194). Therefore, for a while many critics were still sceptical about the importance of a decrease in party identifiers saying that it was not a “meaningful change” (Dalton, 2014:194).

So, what it partisan dealignment? It is the process whereby party attachment by an individual changes in reaction to his or her own confidence in the specific political party. It may be due to a lack of trust in the party or the individuals life experiences may affect the way they look at certain parties with regards to issue voting.

But, before we consider the implications of partisan dealignment let’s briefly consider what causes individuals to become disillusioned. The public may lose trust in a particular party due to; its poor performance, mismanaged expectations, the declining role of political parties due to the increase of special interest groups and organisations which fulfill people’s welfares and finally, changes in mass media’s portrayal of specific parties. Dalton (2014:200) adds that it may also be due to cognitive mobilisation – cognitive mobilisation implies that better education “improves the ability to process political information” (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017).

When individuals decide to stop supporting certain parties the implications may be severe. Voter participation may drop as partisanship helps to mobilise the public for elections (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017) and social groups and party cues become less important. This means that voters are more likely to become issue voters rather than voting due to party loyalty. It also indicates that individuals make their voting decisions closer to the end of campaigns rather than knowing which party they align themselves with from the beginning which in turn means that campaigns are becoming a lot more important (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2017). In South Africa voter participation has dropped from 86% in 1994 to 57% in 2014 showing that there are an increasing number of authorised individuals who are choosing not to vote (Schulz-Herzenberg, 2014:24-26).


To further your knowledge of voting behaviour and partisan dealignment I suggest you read the full text Election 2014 South Africa: The campaigns, results and future prospects.  It will fill in the theoretical gaps of this brief and therefore restricted piece of literature.

By now you should be able to understand the ‘Funnel of Causality’ and recognise its utility and benefits as an analytical tool. Party identification and its major features should be clearly defined in your mind as well as the implications of party dealignment in the context of political systems. The knowledge of these few ideas will open the door of knowledge for those wishing to fully understand voting behaviour.


Dalton, R.J. 2014. Citizen politics: public opinion and political parties in advanced industrial democracies. California: CQ Press.

Schulz-Herzenberg, C. 2009. Trends in Party Support & Voter Behaviour, 1994-2009, in R. Southall & J. Daniel (eds). Zunami! The 2009 South African election. Pretoria: Jacana. 23-46.

Schulz-Herzenberg, C. 2014. Trends in electoral participation, 1994-2014, in C. Schulz-Herzenberg & R. Southhall (eds). Election 2014 South Africa: The campaigns, results and future prospects. Pretoria: Jacana. 000-000.

Schulz-Herzenberg, C. 2017. Class Lecture: Voting Behaviour. Stellenbosch: Stellenbosch University.

Image References

David Turnley/Corbis [http://kids.britannica.com/elementary/art-89186/A-man-votes-in-South-Africa#cite]: A man votes in South Africa. Voting became a civil right for both black and white South Africans in the 1990s.

Figure 1: http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2013/01/07/research-on-electoral-behavior-a-history/

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