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June 3, 2013 / C H Thompson

Political Party Image

Party images are the mental pictures that voters have of the political parties. As defined by Butler and Rose (1960: 17), ‘a party image is nothing more than a party as it appears to the public, the picture left by its surface characteristics’. These definitions are as broad as they are simple. As discussed below, there are numerous sources of party images and so the contents of these mental pictures could vary considerably across parties, across the electorate and across time.

Even an individual voter may well have a vague or inconsistent picture of a given party. Nonetheless, voters’ inclination to simplify their political thinking means that their images of parties will tend to be dominated by one or two key mental associations. And these associations are often persistent over time and shared by large proportions of the electorate. Such prominent associations are the core of a party’s image.

The notion of ‘party image’ has been shelved by most electoral researchers. This is partly just a matter of changing terminology. Many features of parties identified in later work as important influences over electoral choice could reasonably be described as aspects of image. It is also the result of class dealignment. Not surprisingly, given that many political parties arose out of social divisions, voters’ overriding image of a party is often its association with a particular social group. The relevant group will obviously depend not only the party but also on those social divisions that have been most prominent in a country’s politics.

Thus, for example, American voters’ images of their parties include associations with race and (increasingly) religion, in addition to the traditional differences in socioeconomic status between Democrats and Republicans (Brewer, 2009). In Britain, where all else was ‘embellishment and detail’ compared with the dominant class cleavage (Pulzer, 1967; Butler and Stokes, 1974), early studies of party image assessed how closely voters associated the Conservatives and Labour with their traditional class bases (e.g. Benney, Gray and Pear, 1956). A party’s image and its class image were treated as more or less synonymous.

The above extract has been taken from Robert Johns (2012), University of Essex.

Robert Johns

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