THE BLOG
05/08/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2014

Do Obama Mamas Make Democratic Babies? A Look at Parents' Effect on Their Childrens' Partisanship

Birgid Allig via Getty Images

How much are our politics influenced by our parents? One school of thought says we are predisposed to rebel against our parents, and we'll end up as opposing partisans screaming across the Thanksgiving dinner table. But is this true, or are our upbringing and genes our political destiny? Further, what happens when Mom loves Obamacare while Dad's really into Mitt Romney's pleated khakis? And who is most likely to disagree with their parents politically, all things being equal?

To study this, Anzalone Liszt Grove Research paired with Civic Science to collect responses online from 7,304 registered voters across the country about their partisanship, what party they thought their parents are and how much they thought their parents influenced their politics. More information about our methodology and a discussion of the data itself can be found at the end of this article.

Most people share their parents' partisan views.

Most of us end up thinking much like our parents in terms of partisanship. If someone grew up with two Democratic parents, they are overwhelmingly likely to be a Democrat themselves (62 percent Democrat / 12 percent Republican / 19 percent Independent). If they group up with two Republican parents, the same trend holds (62 percent Republican / 11 percent Democrat / 20 percent Independent). And if their parents were political Independents, they're probably Independents too (73 percent Independent / eight percent Democrat / nine percent Republican).

The vast majority of people are in this situation of having both parents agree politically. Americans, at least, tend to marry and have kids with people who share our political worldview. Research further shows that when we do marry someone we disagree with politically, our political views and our partners' typically come closer together over time. Only nine percent of people say their parents are or were of opposite parties, similar to the eight to 10 percent of people in other research who say they "frequently" disagree on political issues (Stoker and Jennings, 2001). This leaves most of us with two same-partisan parents, Democrat, Republican or Independent. It also leaves most of us with political views that match those same-partisan parents.

When kids have split-party parents, they take after their moms more than their dads.

In the less-common event a child has parents with different partisan views, Mom's political views shape their politics more than Dad's. People from split party households tend to be more Democratic than Republican (44 percent Democrat / 30 percent Republican, +14 Democrat), not too different than the country's general Democratic lean. When their mom is a Democrat but their dad is a Republican, this Democratic tilt becomes a strong slant (51 percent Democrat / 26 percent Republican, +26 Democrat). When their mom's a Republican but their dad's a Democrat, they buck the national trend and lean slightly Republican (35 percent Republican / 33 percent Democrat, +2 Republican).

This is true for sons and daughters: Moms' opinions weigh more heavily on both. With a Democratic mom in a split-party situation, men (+20 Democrat) and women (+30 Democrat) lean heavily Democratic. But with a Republican mom and Democratic dad, men (+3 Republican) and women (+8 Democrat) are more Republican than men and women as a whole.

Partisanship is both nature and nurture

Nature matters: Even people who said their parents had little or no impact on their politics heavily share the partisan views of their parents. But people report nurture playing a role too. People who say their parents had a lot or some influence hew even closer to their parents' views. This follows research that suggests half of our partisanship is socialized and half is inherited:

Two Democratic Parents Two Republican Parents
Parents had a lot or some impact on partisanship 71% Democrat / 8% Republican 69% Republican / 8% Democrat
Parents had little or no impact on partisanship 50% Democrat / 17% Republican 52% Republican / 17% Democrat

That said, talking a lot about politics doesn't mean impact. We only found one major group that is more partisan if their parents talked about politics more: whites with two Democratic parents. These people whose parents talked about politics very or somewhat often (65 percent Democrat / 11 percent Republican) were more Democratic than when their parents talked about politics not often or almost never (51 percent Democrat / 19 percent Republican). For everyone else, more often discussion didn't mean any more impact. Some recent research even indicates that hyper-partisan, hyper-vocal parents may be less likely to share their parents' views

Who are the brave disagreers?

Having two parents of the same party isn't political destiny -- just over 10 percent of people with two parents of the same party go full Alex Keaton/Ron Reagan and choose the opposite party of their parents. Who are these iconoclasts?

Republicans with Democratic parents: baby boomer white Southern men with money.
People with Democratic parents are more likely to be Republicans if they are:

  • Baby boomers. Almost two-thirds of Republicans with Democratic parents are 55 and older (64 percent).
  • High earners. A majority (56 percent) who turn Republican earn at least 75,000 per year, compared to only 34 percent of people with Democratic parents overall
  • White. Eighty-five percent are white, compared to only 65 percent of people with two Democratic parents overall
  • White Southern.34 percent are white Southerners, compared to 29 percent of people with two Democratic parents
  • Male. 59 percent are male
  • Live outside cities. Only 22 percent live in cities, compared to 33 percent of all people with two Democratic parents

Democrats with Republican parents: Northeastern women.
This group is a little less predictable than their opposites, but they tend to be:

  • Female. 54 percent of Democrats with Republican parents are women
  • Living in the Northeast. 20 percent live in the Northeast, while only 15 percent of people with Republican parents do.

Interestingly, these Democrats are not especially young: 18 percent of Democrats with Republican parents are under 35, not a statistically significant difference from all people with Republican parents (20 percent). They also aren't notable in their income or urbanity.

So, while most of us like to think of ourselves as free thinkers, both our parents and our genes profoundly influence how we think about the world. These factors are so powerful combined that partisan views are likely to persist throughout generations, a much more common result than children holding a fundamentally different worldview than their parents.

Methodology discussion

This data was collected online by Civic Science, which collects responses across a variety of websites nationally through short three-question surveys. Data for each response is then anonymously matched back to individual respondents' answers across different websites and different visits to the same website, allowing us to compile responses to many questions on each user.

Like all online surveys, the respondents were selected with non-probability methods. They are also subject to biases inherent in this methodology, including only capturing responses from people who engage the specific questions. The survey also omits people who don't use the internet. All questions referenced in this article were either asked second or third in a set of three questions after a non-political question. This attempted to avoid capturing strong partisans who are more engaged by political questions, but it's possible a bias towards hard partisans exists nonetheless. The data was weighted to match the registered voting population's characteristics on gender, age, race, region, income, and partisanship.

Another caveat to this data is that it is self-reported, including parents' partisanship -- it is possible people are misreporting their parents' partisanship which could exaggerate the effect of parental influence. However, our overall findings have been backed up by rigorous social science experiments that survey parents and children separately and avoid this problem. Notably this experiment has been conducted by Kent Jennings, Laura Stoker, and Jake Bowers in the 1960s and 1990s.