Commentary: Party Affiliation: What It Is And What It Isn't

Commentary: Party Affiliation: What It Is And What It Isn't

During every presidential election, questions arise over the results of political polls and how those surveys are conducted. This year's hot topic is the partisan composition of the leading national polls. Politicians and pundits alike now scrutinize a survey sample's partisan split as closely as the horse-race results. Surveys that are deemed to have “too many” Republican or Democratic respondents are widely viewed as biased in favor of George Bush or John Kerry.

These assertions reflect fundamental misunderstanding of party affiliation and how it is measured by polling organizations. Party affiliation is derived from a question typically found at the end of a survey questionnaire, in which respondents are asked how they regard themselves in politics at the moment. In Pew Research Center surveys, the question asks: “In politics today, do you consider yourself a Republican, Democrat or Independent?”

This question is not intended to measure how respondents are registered, how they have voted in the past, or how they have thought of themselves throughout most of their lives. Like most other questions on public opinion surveys, it is intended to measure current feelings about politics – in this case, their feelings of affiliation or disaffection with the major political parties.

Given that it is an attitude and not a personal characteristic, it is not at all comparable to race, ethnicity, gender, age, education, or other demographic markers that are routinely used to check on the representativeness of surveys. Further, long-term tracking and analysis of party identification finds that, for a number of reasons, it varies a good deal from survey to survey.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.