How and Why Americans Switch Parties

Views about cultural and demographic change play a big role.

Visitors at the de Young museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, California, October 16, 2005
Visitors at the de Young museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, California, October 16, 2005 (Thomas Hawk)

13 percent of Americans switched parties in the last five years. Economic anxiety had little to do with Democrats changing sides to support Donald Trump.

Those are some of the more surprising findings of the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group.

Cultural and demographic change is causing people to change sides

It reports the same trends others have noticed, and which are realigning America’s two major political parties: college graduates, minorities and millennials increasingly vote Democratic; older and white voters without a college education increasingly lean Republican.

The reasons:

  • Many of those who leave the Republican Party have positive views about immigration and identify as ideologically liberal.
  • Many of those who leave the Democratic Party have negative about immigration and about Muslims and identify as ideologically conservative.
  • Economic anxiety doesn’t seem to play much of a role. In fact, those Democrats who felt least anxious were the most likely to switch in 2016.

In both cases it’s debatable which came first: a change in ideological outlook or a change of party. Other studies have shown that most voters don’t have strong ideological beliefs and take their cues from their party, with which they identify because they feel it represents “people like them”.

That negative views about immigration and diversity cause people to change sides is borne out by other surveys.

The Pew Research Center, for example, has found (PDF) that only 39 percent of Trump voters believe diversity makes America stronger against 81 percent of Democrats.

Democrats, only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian anymore, are mostly unperturbed by the decline of white Christian America. Republicans, nearly three quarters of whom are white and Christian, feel under siege as the country is changing around them

All voters are equal, but some voters are more equal than others

The Democracy Fund Voter Study Group also found that:

  • Asian and Hispanic Americans have been leaving the Republican Party in droves; and
  • White Americans without a college degree are a larger share of the electorate than is commonly understood, probably close to 45 percent.

Others contest this, but what is not in dispute is that non-college whites have an outsized influence in elections. The reason is that they are well distributed across the country.

College graduates, by contrast, and most racial minorities are clustered in major cities and blue states. That is why you almost never read about Asian Americans. Most live in New York and on the West Coast, where Republicans are not competitive.