The Effect of Marriage on Political Identification

By Shikole Struber
2010, Vol. 2 No. 01 | pg. 1/1

Party identification among individuals is determined by multiple factors including current marital status and other variables such as income and education level. The rate of marriage for people over the age of 18 in the United States has decreased from 72% in 1970 to just 59% in 2002 (US Census Bureau). Marriage is superseding both race and income as the biggest class division of the century (Rauch, 2001). The extent of spousal influence on political behavior is a debated issue that has just recently gained interest by researchers, where in the past Party identification was thought to be more static.

The Influence of Spouses on One Another

There is much debate as to what causes people to change and choose their political parties.  Whether or not couples change their party identification to be more unified after marriage is a question that Stoker and Jennings explore (Stoker, 1989). It has been observed through NES data that married people tend to identify more with the Republican Party. According to Kaufmann and Petrocik “men have become increasingly Republican (Kaufmann, 1999),” while Abramowitz and Saunders also have identified married men as more likely followers of the Republican Party while single women tend to be Democrats (Abramowitz, 2006). If this proves true it might explain the Republican leanings of married couples. While women’s party identification has remained static individually according to Kaufman and Petrocik, married women have been subjected to Republican influence in their domestic lives more so than singles.

Stoker and Jennings describe the political situation marriage creates. They explain that each person brings their own political participation history to the marriage but that “marriage gives rise to a new and shared set of social and economic circumstances…” as well as opportunities to “learn from and influence” each other (Stoker, 1989). It makes sense that a married couple would share political influence as much as they would other aspects of their lives. According to the Michigan School, political identification is fashioned in early childhood from parents. The home a child is brought up in teaches politics as much as it does table manners. David Knoke also found that “the best single predictor of an individual’s party preference is the preference of his parents (Knoke, 1972).” Using this method of thinking, by the time a person is married they should have a solid opinion on politics and party identification as well as participation expectations. Considering that a person’s party identification will change because of marriage does not fit in the traditional definition that has been described. However, a spouse is a symbol of a new family being started. In this way, the spouse could have the same effect as parents did growing up. The influence they exert could alter previously held positions. Weiner describes this as “re-socialization” after marriage (Weiner, 1978). The extent of the influence is contested because it opposes the previous views on the stronghold of attitudes in politics.

Another theory that addresses spousal influence is Becker’s joint household utility theory. This theory of party identification implies that both the husband and wife will vote on the basis of the husbands economic interests (Kan, 2006). The economy is an important area of consideration when voting especially with a looming threat of recession. It implies that both partners will be supporting the same party on the basis of economic policy. Changing a preference according to individual gain is much more plausible than the theory Stoker and Jennings present. Utility is an important aspect of politics. When people feel like they get something out of their actions and participation, it makes them more likely to continue; rational choice often dictates this. Becker’s theory however does not consider the possibility that the wife could be the primary bread-winner in a household. This assumption ignores a large percentage of the electorate. “Statistics show that college educated women are more likely to marry than non-college educated women — although they marry, on average, two years later (Zernike, 2007).” If these women are the ones getting married, then they also have greater earning potential in the marriage, leaving Becker’s theory even more obsolete.

Hakim’s preference theory takes the potential for a wife to be the primary earner into account. She argues that women have more options in the modern world and are no longer constrained to be housewives. In her approach, she identifies three groups of women: the home-centered, the work-centered, and the adaptive/ambivalent woman. The home-centered woman would represent the traditional stay at home mother and housewife; the work-centered woman would represent the women who have a full time job/career on top of their household responsibilities; the adaptive/ambivalent woman would represent the women who had part time jobs in addition to a family and were not really sure which aspect of life is or should be more important to them (Kan, 2006). Each would have a different role economically, and in this theory politically, in relation to her spouse. Hakim “doesn’t draw any direct implications for political behavior” however, the work-centered woman will obviously have more influence from outside the house, like work and community, than the other groups. This would expose her to different perspectives than hers and her spouses. It would also indicate that she was earning money in partnership with her spouse. Plutzer and McBurnett also identify the “nontraditional” marriage, where the wife works full time, as encouraging “interest-based voting behavior (Plutzer, 1991).” The home-centered woman would be expected to borrow or conform to her husband’s economic and political ideologies to a greater extent than the other types (Kan, 2006).

The Parties as a Cause of Differences

The differing bases of partisanship and voting behavior have been referred to by researchers as the “marriage gap.” Weisberg theorizes that the “marriage gap” may be due to differing appeals by the parties themselves (Weisberg, 1987).”  He says that married people are 13% more likely to be conservative in politics than unmarried. Kingston and Finkel point out that married couples have a more socially conventional domestic life that may transfer to the political realm of their lives (Kingston, 1987). Flanigan and Zingale also cite traditional values as a reason for married couples to gravitate to the Republican Party while singles often identify more with the Democratic Party (Flanigan, 2006). Socially conventional domestic life refers to the nuclear family that has a mother, father and children where the father is the primary earner. Non-traditional domestic lifestyles refer to being single until later in life, having children out of wedlock, or having a same sex partner.

There are several policies that the Republicans promote that are aimed towards the conventional family. Some of the policies that are traditionally Republican include tax cuts for the wealthy to increase the flow of currency in the economy and increase the country’s GDP; the Federal Marriage Amendment that would officially define marriage as between a male and a female; the teaching of creationism in schools, and the No Child Left Behind Act. These policies do not necessarily apply to only married couples; there are single parents with children that the latter two policies would affect. After considering that marital status is an indicator of increased wealth, and that the institution of marriage itself is trying to be protected by the party, it is possible to see how the policy areas appeal more to married couples.  

Another aspect of married life that may cause married people to identify with a more conservative party is identified by Plissner as home-ownership and the presence of children (Plissner, 1983). “Homeowners are…slightly more inclined to vote and have conservative political preferences (Kingston, 1987).” The values that the Republican Party enunciates would fit in this theory as the reason for married people to vote for them. Plutzer and McBurnett (1991) found that this theory could work for a conservative candidate but not necessarily for a conservative party. However, they are the only researchers who have not agreed with conditions of marriage causing people to be more Republican. They see the vote with a conservative candidate as an aspect of voting behavior that the conditions of marriage affect, but not as party identification. This realm of thinking could be valid in some aspects. Ronald Reagan was a very popular President among both of the parties. Through his charisma he attracted followers from both the Democrats and Republicans, aiding in Plutzer and McBurnett’s theory.

One election that is contradictory to the theory that married people tend to be Republican is Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign that marketed family values better than the Republican Party did. In the 1996 campaign “Clinton’s ads showed him supporting school curfews, school uniforms, bans on cigarette ads aimed at children, and requiring teenage mothers to stay in school or lose welfare (Jamieson, 1999).” His crusade against the tobacco industry and guns, stereotypically Democratic ideologies, was spun to reflect the family values that those who were married would more identify with.

Marriage, family and their promotion has become somewhat of a partisan divide. Republicans are encouraging marriage and conventional family life. For this reason those Americans who are already married could be more inclined to support the party because of its support for their choices. Democrats on the other hand are more likely to be supporting anti-poverty and anti-teen pregnancy initiatives. These goals indirectly support the family, but are still partisan issues. Democrats also feel that the government is getting too involved when they are advocating for people to “get hitched (Rauch, 2001).”  It is common political understanding that the Republican Party promotes more regulation on people’s private and moral decisions such as homosexuality and abortion. Yet, it advocates individual financial success without government interference (Hershey, 21). All of these things become more irrelevant with marriage. A married couple is less likely to need an abortion than a pregnant teen. A married couple is likely to have a stable financial situation because there are two incomes to contribute to the bills.

Not all researchers agree that the social institution of marriage is related as strongly to partisanship. Abramowitz and Saunders claim that “party identification is much more strongly related to voters’ ideological orientations than to their social identities as defined by their group membership (Abramowitz, 2006).” They fail to consider that ideological orientations can be derived from their social identities. Hershey has a chart that defines the differences in the two American parties including core supporters. The lists of core supporters for the Democratic party includes lower-income people, minority groups, secular individuals, teachers, and trial lawyers (Hershey, 21). All of these categories portray group membership and social identity. The correlation between these things and party identification is strong.

Causes of the Marriage Gap

Unmarried voters have become more prevalent in today’s society. A decline in marriage has contributed to the increasing number of unmarried voters. Weisberg agrees that “the marriage gap emerged just as the number of unmarried voters became large enough to have important political effects (Weisberg, 1987).” Edlund and Pande have credited the Democratic lean of the single voter to this decline. They claim that unmarried women have more of a need for social benefits that the Democratic Party offers (Edlund, 2002). The earning potential for women has increased dramatically through the past decade. Cherry cites studies that show fewer women may seek marriage as their earning potential rises. As women’s earnings increase, marriage rates have been seen to decrease (2003, 29). This contributes to more unmarried people who would need social services less because they earn enough already.

This is not always the case however; another aspect of the unmarried constituency increase has been the voting age being lowered to 18. The amendment was added in 1971, the year before Weisberg claims the first election that had a marriage gap occur. He cites that married people were 8% more likely to be Republican since 1972, indicating a potential correlation between the newly registered young voters and their apparent Democratic leanings.

Political Participation

There has not been much research about the direct relationship between partisanship and political participation; however the lifestyles of typical Republican voters are more conducive to participation. As mentioned earlier, married people have voted 8% more Republican since 1972 (Weisberg, 1987). This could indicate that unmarried voters are less likely to register with a party or show up to the polls in the first place.

“Young single persons in their twenties are inevitably preoccupied with two rather personal quests: the quest for a mate and the quest for a suitable job. These quests are to some degree incompatible with devotion of attention to broader events. Once a mate is found-and this generally means some kind of tolerable job as well-the individual begins to take a more stable role in adult life and can afford to turn his eyes outward in a new degree (Converse with Niemi 1971,461).” 

This passage is used by Highton and Wolfinger in examining the turnout rates of young people. They conclude that the stability, both lifestyle and residentially, marriage offers make those who are married more apt to be politically active in the first place (Highton, 2001). These conclusions may make the younger set of politically active persons sound self-centered and materialistic, however it must be understood that stability is necessary before a real comprehension and inclusion into politics can exist.

However, this increase in participation does not occur immediately. Stoker and Jennings find that marriage first dampens political participation especially among young newlyweds (Stoker, 1989). As with any transition they find that the new economic and social circumstances that newly married couples are placed in hinder voting and other forms of participation such as contributions to one of the parties until they adjust.

An aspect of political participation that marriage does encourage almost immediately is residency requirements in order to register to vote. In states that have closed primaries, it is required that a voter is registered for a certain period of time prior to the election. Kingston and Finkel claim that singles have “fewer commitments rooted in their domestic lives” than married people do (Kingston, 1987). For several reasons that Highton and Wolfinger (2001) point out, such as education, career and economic instability, single Americans tend to move more often than their married counterparts. This makes registering to vote inconvenient as well often impossible. Some states, like New York, require a person to have a local address for 30 days before they can be eligible to vote (NY State Board of Elections).  

Age is also an important variable of the relationship between marriage, voting, and party identification. A person can identify themselves with a party without turning out to vote, however it would make more sense that a person who is politically inclined enough to identify would care enough to vote. Highton and Wolfinger conclude that turnout of married couples below the age of 24 is one to two percentage points below that of singles (2001, 206). Stoker and Jennings also found that “married people voted at lower levels than unmarried in the younger cohorts (Stoker, 1989).” This information could point to age having more of an effect on turnout that marriage itself does. As of 2005 the median age of first marriage according to the U.S. Census Bureau is 27.1 for men and 25.3 for women. With this information a better conclusion could be that age is only a better determinant until you reach the median age of marriage. The demographics of marital status have had an increase in age, reflecting the social changes of the United States. 

Some of the Democratic policies that have been seen also reflect social changes in the United States. Pro-choice policies to protect a woman’s right to chose what she does with her own body; a higher minimum wage in an effort to decrease poverty; and universal health care to keep the country healthy and happy are all traditionally Democratic policies. A policy such as universal health care could, in theory appeal to both married people and singles, but because married people tend to be more economically stable and can already afford health care the primary proponents tend to be single people. The same could be said in raising minimum wage; married individuals are already established, making more than minimum wage, so raising it would not benefit them directly. The debate about abortion has taken on a family value role and married people tend to have a stronger hold in family life than singles do.   

Important Election

The 1984 election of President Reagan seems to be a good example of every aspect of the marriage gap. According to the American National Election Study Reagan won 63% of the married vote but only 51% of the vote from the unmarried. Weisberg claims the “importance of the marriage gap is increased by the fact that 36% of the eligible electorate were unmarried in 1984.” Married people voted in greater proportions in this election as well  by 11% (Weisberg, 1987). This election showed the importance of the marriage gap in that there was a larger margin between the married and unmarried voter than there was between male and female by 10% (Kingston, 1995).

The 1984 election lends a hand to Kaufmann and Petrocik’s theory that married men are becoming more Republican. Reagan earned 65.9% of the votes from married men and the least amount, 47.7% from unmarried women (Weisberg, 1987). This polarization not only contributes to the marriage gap, but also to the gender gap. Kingston and Finkel point out that Reagan made his political platform full of “familistic” sentiments and had traditional cultural appeals (Kingston, 1987). The men that were beginning to lean more Republican were being spoken to directly. It was one of the first times these appeals were made in a campaign.

Political Strategy & Conclusion

An interesting aspect of political identification that has not yet been considered is the marital status of the candidate. In the midst of an election year, the role of Bill Clinton in Hillary Clinton’s potential presidency has been a heated topic. It would be interesting to consider if her ratings would go up if she were single; however there has not been a president of this country that has not been married. This could be a reflection of social views of the country, or even just a coincidence. The divorce rate is climbing while the rate of marriage in the first place is declining, so it would be logical if the political realm reflected this.

There is a possibility that politicians are using their marital status as a form of strategy. When you are in the public sphere you must be a role model and have the desirable attributes of a worthy American citizen. Marriage is still an American value that is mainstream and held to higher standard than the single life. A Democratic candidate would probably be the first to run for a major office without being married because of the appeals and position of the party. It could be a completely new strategy for the Democratic Party.

Married couples as well as singles have emerged as a major constituency with great power to effect political outcomes. Their preferences now matter more to the parties as institutions. With the number of marriages decreasing while the political pull of the married increasing, researchers have a phenomenon to follow in future elections and party platforms. 


Abramowitz, Alan I., and Kyle L. Saunders. "Exploring the Bases of Partisanship in the American Electorate: Social Identity Vs. Ideology." Political Research Quarterly 59 (2006):  175-187. 9 Apr. 2008. 

Cherry, Robert. Rational Choice and the Price of Marriage. Malden, Massachussetts: Blackwell, 2003. 

Edlund, Lena, and Rohini Pande. "Why Have Women Become Left-Wing? the Political Gender Gap and the Decline in Marriage." The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2002):  917-961. 

Falk, Erika, and Susan Sherr. "The Enthymeme Gap in the 1996 Presidential Campaign." PS: Political Science and Politics 32 (1999):  12-16. 

Flanigan, William H., and Nancy H. Zingale. Political Behavior of the American Electorate. 11th ed. Washington, DC: CQ P, 2006. 

Hershey, Marjorie. Party Politics in America. 12th ed. New York: Pearson Education Limited, 2007. 

Highton, Benjamin, and Raymond E. Wolfinger. "The First Seven Years of the Political Life Cycle." American Journal of Political Science 45 (2001):  202-209. 29 Jan. 2008. 

Kan, Man Yee, and Anthony Heath. "The Political Values and Choices of Husbands and Wives." Journal of Marriage and Family 68 (2006):  70-86. 29 Jan. 2008. 

Kaufmann, Karen M., and John R. Petrocik. "The Changing Politics of American Men: Understanding the Sources of the Gender Gap." American Journal of Political Science, 43 (1999):  864-887. 12 Feb. 2008. 

Kingston, Paul W., and Steven Finkel. "Is There a Marriage Gap in Politics?" Journal of Marriage and the Family, 49 (1987):  57-64. JSTOR. 01 Mar. 2008. 

Knoke, David. "A Causal Model for the Political Party Preferences of American Men." American Sociological Review 37 (1972):  679-689. 9 Apr. 2008. 

Plutzer, Eric, and Michael McBurnett. "Family Life and American Politics: the "Marriage Gap" Reconsidered." The Public Opinion Quarterly 55 (1991):  113-127. JSTOR. 02 Mar. 2008. 

Rauch, Jonathan. "The Widening Marriage Gap: America’S New Class Divide." The Atlantic 23 May 2001. . 

Stoker, Laura, and M. Kent Jennings. "Life-Cycle Transitions and Political Participation: the Case of Marriage." The American Political Science Review 89 (1989):  421-433. JSTOR. 02 Mar. 2008. 

"Voter Eligibility." New York State Board of Elections. 13 Apr. 2008 . 

Weiner, Terry. "Homogeneity of Political Party Preferences Between Spouses." The Journal of Politics 40 (1978):  208-211. 13 Apr. 2008. 

Weisberg, Herbert F. "The Demographics of a New Voting Gap Marital Differences in American Voting." The Public Opinion Quarterly 51 (1987):  335-343. JSTOR. 01 Mar. 2008.  

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