What Arlen Specter Taught Us about Party Switching

Oct 15 '12

This is a guest post by Kevin A. EvansRolfe D. Peterson, and Nathan J. Hadley.


In 2009, Arlen Specter (R to D-PA) left his political party and made headlines, enemies, and a few friends in the process.  He serves as a cautionary tale to those thinking about jumping ship; Specter did not make it past his primary.  Our research (gated; earlier ungated version) helps to illuminate why the election after a switch is an uphill battle.

Following a party switch, the incumbent attempts to frame the decision as one based on ideology (principles).  Specter claimed the Republican Party had moved “far to the right.”

By contrast, opponents and the media tend to focus on electoral motivations (opportunism).  For example, Rep. Joe Sestak’s ad showcased Specter’s own off-hand, and somewhat out-of-context, remark that he switched “in order to get re-elected.”

With these two competing narratives so apparent, we conducted a survey of registered voters in western Pennsylvania—run by the Mercyhurst Center for Applied Politics—to observe voter reaction to the two frames.

The data reveal that most registered voters viewed Specter’s switch as opportunistic, rather than principled.  Republicans and independents were more likely, when compared to Democrats, to see the switch as motivated by a desire for reelection.  In addition, respondents who saw Specter as more opportunistic were less likely to view him favorably (even when controlling for things like party, education, political interest, age, gender, etc.).

In other words, on top of all the other concerns that traditionally come along with changing parties, like being accepted by the new party, convincing wary political activists to donate to your campaign, rebuilding a coalition of voters, and trying to maintain your position on committees, switchers need to be cognizant about how the move is portrayed.

So Arlen Specter clearly lost the framing war in his last race.  Even Democrats, the source of support he needed to secure a primary victory, were reluctant to credit Specter with the more positive, principled motivations.  Self-identified Democrats were more than twice as likely to attribute his decision to political opportunism than to ideological considerations.  Had he managed to defeat Rep. Sestak, abandoned Republicans and crucial independents likely would have been even more skeptical of his motivations—making reelection to the Senate highly dubious in light of his low approval ratings among past supporters and swing voters.

As Christopher Beam of Slate.com warns, “Make sure your switch looks ideological, not opportunistic.”  Based on our research, we cannot agree more.

Rest in peace Senator Specter, we truly enjoyed studying your last reelection bid.