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Red mate, blue mate: Study says U.S. couples select on basis of politics

Presidential nominees carefully pick their running mates so that their ticket is in solid agreement on the issues. But what about the average married couple? A new study of U.S. spouses shows they partake in very little political vetting, but tend to walk in political lockstep throughout their relationship, anyway.

In an article to be published in the Journal of Politics, researchers examined physical and behavioral traits in thousands of spouse pairs in the United States. They found that political attitudes were among the strongest shared traits – stronger, even, than qualities like personality or looks.

That’s because spouses in the study appeared to be “sorting” on the basis of politics – instinctively selecting a partner who happened to have similar social and political views. People “placed more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion and social activity than they (did) on locating similar mates in terms of physique or personality,” according to the article.

Meanwhile, researchers found little support for the notion that partners tended to adapt to one another’s political beliefs over time, a discovery that could have implications on partisan politics for generations to come.

“We did expect to find a strong political bond between husbands and wives,” said John R. Hibbing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of political science and a co-author of the study. “But we were surprised that political concordance seems to exist from the very early years in the marriage, instead of the folk wisdom of mates growing more alike politically as their relationship goes along.”

The study adds to recent “sorting” research that has uncovered a surprising level of uniformity in Americans’ personal political communication networks – where they live, with whom they socialize and where they work.

The new research shows that this “sorting” doesn’t stop with the selection of neighborhoods or workplaces, however. It’s also visible in choice of spouses, said John R. Alford, professor of political science at Rice University and the study’s lead author.

“It suggests that, perhaps, if you’re looking for a long-term romantic relationship, skip ‘What’s your sign?’ and go straight to ‘Obama or Palin?’” Alford said. “And if you get the wrong answer, just walk away.”

Researchers were careful to note that “sorting” is not the only reason for spouses’ political uniformity. Social homogamy, or the tendency for people to choose a mate from within one’s own religious, social, economic and educational surroundings, plays a role. So does inter-spousal persuasion on different issues over the years. But those factors’ influences on participants’ political attitudes were relatively weak, according to the study.

Hear Hibbing discuss the study’s findings in a podcast.

What might this mean for the future of American politics? One interpretation, the authors said, is that if parents transmit political traits to their children, then the practice of liberals marrying liberals and conservatives marrying conservatives seems likely to decrease the number of people in the political middle.

“Obviously, parents are very influential in shaping the political beliefs of their children,” Hibbing said. “If both parents are on the left or on the right, it makes it more difficult for a child to be something different. It may be part of the reason why we see such polarization.”

This means that out-marriage – a major means by which diversity enters into extended families – doesn’t actually contribute much to the political “melting pot,” Alford said.

“Instead, marriage works largely to reinforce the ongoing ideological polarization that we see so clearly today,” he said.

The study, to appear in a forthcoming edition of the Journal, was authored by Rice’s Alford, UNL’s Hibbing, Peter K. Hatemi of the University of Sydney, Nicholas G. Martin of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and Lindon J. Eaves of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

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John Hibbing, professor of political science, can be reached at 402.472.3220 or jhibbing1@unl.edu.

National appearances for this research:
LiveScience | MSNBC.com | Yahoo! News | United Press International | TIME

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