August 2008 Poll - Discussion

Political Affection or "Feeling Thermometer" Ratings

Research into how people self-identify as "liberal," "moderate," "conservative" and so on suggests both cognitive and emotional factors are involved in the formation of one's political identity.  The cognitive approach explores how one's beliefs about certain topics influence one's political identity. For example, someone who believes the practive of abortion is immoral is likely to self-identify as a conservative. On the other hand, someone who belives that a woman has an inabliable individual right to make the decision about whether or not to have an abortion is likely to self-identify as a liberal.  The emotional or affective approach explores how one's "feelings" about certain topics influence one's political identity. Thus, someone who believes abortion is immoral--yet has little emotional or affective connection with this belief--may be less likely to self-identify as a conservative than someone who holds the belief and has a strong affective response to the issue. Thus, the cognitions (beliefs, opinions, etc.) and emotions (affects, preferences, etc.) that one experiences relative to a political "object" both may influence political self-identity.

{mosimage}In our previous polls we have examined how such factors as psychological type, party identification, age, sex, and so on correlate with one's political identity as "liberal", "conservative," and "moderate".  The August 08 Poll included items to help us explore the role of political affections in addition to these previously examined factors.  Thus, the August 08 Poll included eight items called "feeling thermometers" to assess respondents political affection for eight different political groups: liberals, republicans, libertarians, conservatives, politicians, democrats, independents and moderates. ("Feeling Themometers" have been used for some time in national surveys of U.S. political dynamics such as those conducted by the ANES ). Participants in the August Poll were asked to:

Please indicate how you feel toward each of the following groups using a "feeling thermometer" ranging from 0 degrees to 100 degrees.

    • Ratings between 50 degrees and 100 degrees mean that you feel favorable and warm toward the group.
    • Ratings between 0 degrees and 50 degrees mean that you don't feel favorable toward the group and that you don't care too much for that group.
    • You would rate the group at the 50 degree mark if you don't feel particularly warm or cold toward the group.

Before examining the relationship between feeling thermometer responses, type preferences, and other factors we first analyzed the reponses using factor analysis.  Results indicated that respondents appeared to discriminate between three different political groups in their ratings:

  • Group 1: Liberals, Democrats, Conservatives, Republicans
  • Group 2: Independents, Moderates, Libertarians
  • Group 3: Politicians

We further analyzed the results for groups 1 & 2 using reliability analysis. Results showed that responses to Group 1 were highly consistent (coefficient alpha = .90). Results for Group 2 were only slightly consistent (coefficient alpha = .61).

These results suggest at least three impresssions. First, in terms of political affection, respondents tended to associate closely political party with political ideology.  For example, for Group 1, respondents who expressed high political affection for Democrats were also likely to express high political affection for liberals (and less political affection for Republicans and conservatives). Similarly, in Group 2, Libertarians (a political party) and Independents (a growing political party) are associated with moderates (a political ideology).  This association of ideologies with parties seems reasonable given the increased political polarization in the U.S. over the past 20 or so years and the tendency to assign liberal-conservative ideology to Democrat-Republican party categories. (However, as we've noted here , the association has been stronger for the Republican-Conservative category than the Democrat-Liberal category. This trend may be changing, however, with John McCain as the Republican candidate in that his somewhat "maverick" persona seems to be leading some conservatives (and particularly social conservatives) to distinguish their ideology from what the Republican party stands for.  We've noticed this trend especially with some of the political commentators such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.  The Bush Administration's less-than-conservative "big government" policies also may be contributing to this movement.)

The second impresssion is that the results suggest respondents differentiated somewhat between the primary political parties in the U.S. and the secondary political groups.  This interpretation seems valid given extant political dynamics in the U.S. For example, analysts of the Presidential primaries generally note that candidates often target themselves to their base during the primaries and, once proclaimed the presumptive nominee, move more to the "center" in an attempt to attract the independents, moderates and other "swing voters". (See this article for an example of this consideration.) The low reliability rating for this group also suggests that respondents viewed them as a somewhat loosely connected "other" group of politicial entities in comparison to the more tightly connected entities in Group 1.

A third impression is that respondents viewed "politicians" as separate from political parties and groups. Future studies using the approach used here might want to include "feeling themometer" ratings for particular politicians such as state govenors, House of Representative members and so on to bolster this interpretation. 

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