Hostname: page-component-77c89778f8-9q27g Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-07-17T01:36:17.795Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 January 2013

Northwestern University
Stanford University
Aarhus University
James N. Druckman is Payson S. Wild Professor, Department of Political Science, Northwestern University, Scott Hall, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208 (
Erik Peterson is a graduate student, Department of Political Science, Stanford University, Encina Hall West, 616 Serra Street, Stanford, CA 94305 (
Rune Slothuus is Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, Bartholins Alle 7, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark (


Competition is a defining element of democracy. One of the most noteworthy events over the last quarter-century in U.S. politics is the change in the nature of elite party competition: The parties have become increasingly polarized. Scholars and pundits actively debate how these elite patterns influence polarization among the public (e.g., have citizens also become more ideologically polarized?). Yet, few have addressed what we see as perhaps more fundamental questions: Has elite polarization altered the way citizens arrive at their policy opinions in the first place and, if so, in what ways? We address these questions with a theory and two survey experiments (on the issues of drilling and immigration). We find stark evidence that polarized environments fundamentally change how citizens make decisions. Specifically, polarization intensifies the impact of party endorsements on opinions, decreases the impact of substantive information and, perhaps ironically, stimulates greater confidence in those—less substantively grounded—opinions. We discuss the implications for public opinion formation and the nature of democratic competition.

Research Article
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2013

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Aarøe, Lene. 2011. “Investigating Frame Strength.” Political Communication 28 (April): 207–26.Google Scholar
American Political Science Association. Committee on Political Parties. 1950. “Toward a More Responsible Two-party System.”Google Scholar
Arceneaux, Kevin. 2008. “Can Partisan Cues Diminish Democratic Accountability?Political Behavior 30 (June): 139–60.Google Scholar
Bartels, Larry 2002. “Beyond the Running Tally.” Political Behavior 24 (June): 117–50.Google Scholar
Boiney, Lindsley G., Kennedy, Jane, and Nye, Pete. 1997. “Instrumental Bias in Motivated Reasoning: More When More is Needed.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 72 (October): 124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bolsen, Toby, and Cook, Fay Lomax. 2008. “Public Opinion on Energy Policy, 1974–2006.” Public Opinion Quarterly 72 (2): 364–88.Google Scholar
Boudreau, Cheryl. N.d. “Gresham's Law of Cue-Taking.” Political Communication. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Brader, Ted. 2006. Campaigning for Hearts and Minds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
Brewer, Paul R. 2001. “Value Words and Lizard Brains.” Political Psychology 22 (March): 4564.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Bullock, John G. 2011. “Elite Influence on Public Opinion in an Informed Electorate.” American Political Science Review 105 (August): 496515.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chong, Dennis, and Druckman, James N.. 2007. “Framing Public Opinion in Competitive Democracies.” American Political Science Review 101 (November): 637–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chong, Dennis, and Druckman, James N.. 2010. “Dynamic Public Opinion.” American Political Science Review 104 (November): 663–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Chong, Dennis, and Druckman, James N.. 2011. “Identifying Frames in Political News.” In Sourcebook for Political Communication Research, eds. Bucy, Erik P. and Lance Holbert, R.. New York: Routledge, 238–67.Google Scholar
Chong, Dennis, and Druckman, James N.. N.d. “Strategies of Counter-framing.” Journal of Politics. Forthcoming.Google Scholar
Dancey, Logan and Goren, Paul. 2010. “Party Identification, Issue Attitudes, and the Dynamics of Political Debate.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (July): 686–99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N. 2004. “Political Preference Formation.” American Political Science Review 98 (November): 671–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N. 2010. “Competing Frames in a Political Campaign.” In Winning with Words, eds. Schaffner, Brian F. and Sellers, Patrick J.. New York: Routledge, 101–20.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N. 2011. “What's It All About?: Framing in Political Science.” In Perspectives on Framing, ed. Keren, Gideon. New York: Psychology Press/Taylor and Francis, 279302.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N. 2012. “The Politics of Motivation.” Critical Review: A Journal of Politics andSociety 24 (2): 199216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N., and Bolsen, Toby. 2011. “Framing, Motivated Reasoning, and Opinions about Emergent Technologies.” Journal of Communication 61 (August): 659–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N., Fein, Jordan, and Leeper, Thomas J.. 2012. “A Source of Bias in Public Opinion Stability.” American Political Science Review 106 (May): 430–54.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N., Lynn Hennessy, Cari, Charles, Kristi St., and Weber, Jonathan. 2010. “Competing Rhetoric over Time.” Journal of Politics 72 (January): 136–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Druckman, James N., and Leeper, Thomas J.. 2012a. “Learning More from Political Communication Experiments: Pretreatment and Its Effects.” American Journal of Political Science 56 (October): 875–96.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N., and Leeper, Thomas J.. 2012b. “Is Public Opinion Stable?Daedalus 106: 430–54.Google Scholar
Druckman, James N., and Nelson, Kjersten R.. 2003. “Framing and Deliberation.” American Journal of Political Science 47 (October): 729–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fiorina, Morris P., and Abrams, Samuel J.. 2008. “Political Polarization in the American Public.” Annual Review of Political Science 11 (June): 563–88.Google Scholar
Goren, Paul, Federico, Christopher M., and Caul Kittilson, Miki. 2009. “Source Cues, Partisan Identities, and Political Value Expression.” American Journal of Political Science 55 (October): 805–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Green, Donald P., Palmquist, Bradley, and Schickler, Eric. 2002. Partisan Hearts and Minds. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Hänggli, Regula, and Kriesi, Hanspeter. 2010. “Political Framing Strategies and Their Impact on Media Framing in a Swiss Direct-Democratic Campaign.” Political Communication 27 (2): 141–57.Google Scholar
Hetherington, Marc. 2009. “Putting Polarization in Perspective.” British Journal of Political Science 39 (April): 413–48.Google Scholar
Iyengar, Shanto, Sood, Gurav, and Lelkes, Yphtach. 2012. “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization.” Public Opinion Quarterly 76 (3): 405–31.Google Scholar
Jacobson, Gary C. 2008. A Divider, Not a Uniter. New York: Pearson.Google Scholar
Jerit, Jennifer. 2009. “How Predictive Appeals Affect Policy Opinions.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (April): 411–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Johnson, Dominic D. P., and Fowler, James H.. 2011. “The Evolution of Overconfidence.” Nature 447 (September): 317–20.Google Scholar
Krauss, Clifford, and Broder, John M.. 2012. “Oil Drilling in the Gulf Rebounds as Prices Promote Exploration.” New York Times, March 5.Google Scholar
Kunda, Ziva. 1990. “The Case for Motivated Reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108 (November): 480–98.Google Scholar
Lascher, Edward L., and Korey, John L.. 2011. “The Myth of the Independent Voter, California Style.” California Journal of Politics and Policy 3 (January).Google Scholar
Lavine, Howard, Johnston, Christopher, and Steenbergen, Marco. 2012. The Ambivalent Partisan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Levendusky, Matthew S. 2010. “Clearer Cues, More Consistent Voters.” Political Behavior 32 (1): 111–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lupia, Arthur. 1994. “Shortcuts versus Encyclopedias: Information and Voting Behavior in California Insurance Reform Elections.” American Political Science Review 88 (March): 6376.Google Scholar
Mackie, Diane M., Worth, Leila T., and Asuncion, Arlene G.. 1990. “Processing of Persuasive In-group Messages.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 58 (May): 812–22.Google Scholar
Mansbridge, Jane. 1983. Beyond Adversary Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
McCarty, Nolan, Rosenthal, Howard, and Poole, Keith T.. 2006. Polarized America. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Nelson, Thomas E., Clawson, Rosalee A., and Oxley, Zoe M.. 1997. “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance.” American Political Science Review 91 (3): 567–83.Google Scholar
Nicholson, Stephen P. 2011. “Dominating Cues and the Limits of Elite Influence.” Journal of Politics 73 (October): 1165–77.Google Scholar
Nicholson, Stephen P. 2012. “Polarizing Cues.” American Journal of Political Science 56 (January): 5266.Google Scholar
Nicholson, Stephen P., and Heit, Evan. 2012. “The Partisan Foundations of Citizen Competence.” University of California, Merced. Typescript.Google Scholar
Nir, Lilach. 2011. “Motivated Reasoning and Public Opinion Perception.” Public Opinion Quarterly 75 (3): 504–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
O'Keefe, Daniel J. 2002. Persuasion. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
Payne, John W., Bettman, James R., and Johnson, Eric J.. 1993. The Adaptive Decision Maker. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Petersen, Michael Bang, Skov, Martin, Serritzlew, Søren, and , Thomas Ramsøy. N.d. “Motivated Reasoning and Political Parties: Evidence for Increased Processing in the Face of Party Cues.” Political Behavior. ForthcomingGoogle Scholar
Petersen, Michael Bang, Slothuus, Rune, and Togeby, Lise. 2010. “Political Parties and Value Consistency in Public Opinion Formation.” Public Opinion Quarterly 74 (3): 530–50.Google Scholar
Peterson, Erik. 2011. “Competitive Partisan Issue Framing.” Undergraduate honors thesis. Northwestern University.Google Scholar
Pew Research Center for the People and the Press Political Survey. 2011. iPOLL Databank, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut (April 22, 2011).Google Scholar
Pew Research Center/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll. 2010. iPOLL Databank, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut (April 22, 2011).Google Scholar
Prior, Markus. 2007. “Is Partisan Bias in Perceptions of Objective Conditions Real?” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago.Google Scholar
Redlawsk, David. 2002. “Hot Cognition or Cool Consideration.” Journal of Politics 64 (November): 1021–44.Google Scholar
Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People. Hindsdale, IL: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.Google Scholar
Slothuus, Rune. 2010. “When Can Political Parties Lead Public Opinion?Political Communication 27 (May): 158–77.Google Scholar
Slothuus, Rune. 2011. “Assessing the Influence of Political Parties on Public Opinion.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the International Society of Political Psychology, Istanbul, Turkey.Google Scholar
Slothuus, Rune, and Vreese, Claes H. de. 2010. “Political Parties, Motivated Reasoning, and Issue Framing Effects.” Journal of Politics 72 (3): 630–45.Google Scholar
Smith, Eric R. A. N. 2002. Energy, the Environment, and Public Opinion. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
Smith, Joanne R., Terry, Deborah J., Crosier, Timothy R., and Duck, Julie M.. 2005. “The Importance of the Relevance of the Issue to the Group in Voting Intentions.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 27 (2): 163–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Sniderman, Paul M., Brody, Richard A., and Tetlock, Philip E.. 1991. Reasoning and Choice: Explorations in Political Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Sniderman, Paul M., and Stiglitz, Edward H.. 2012. The Reputational Premium. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
Sniderman, Paul, and Theriault, Sean M.. 2004. “The Structure of Political Argument and the Logic of Issue Framing.” In Studies in Public Opinion: Attitudes, Nonattitudes, Measurement Error, and Change, eds. Saris, W. E. and Sniderman, P. M.. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 133–65.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Taber, Charles S., and Lodge, Milton. 2006. “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs.” American Journal of Political Science 50 (July): 755–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Transue, John E., Lee, Daniel J., and Aldrich, John H.. 2009. “Treatment Spillover Effects across Survey Experiments.” Political Analysis 17 (2): 143–61.Google Scholar
Ura, Joseph Daniel, and Ellis, Christopher R.. 2012. “Partisan Moods.” Journal of Politics 74 (January): 277–91.Google Scholar
Visser, Penny S., Bizer, George Y., and Krosnick, Jon A.. 2006. “Exploring the Latent Structure of Strength-Related Attitude Attributes.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 38. Ed. Zanna, M.. San Diego: Academic Press.Google Scholar
White, Jonathan, and Ypi, Lea. 2011. “On Partisan Political Justification.” American Political Science Review 105 (May): 381–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wyer, Natalie A. 2010. “Selective Self-Categorization.” Journal of Social Psychology 150 (September): 452–70.Google Scholar
Submit a response


No Comments have been published for this article.