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How Elite Partisan Polarization Affects Public Opinion Formation (WP-12-14)

James Druckman, Erik Peterson, and Rune Slothuus

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

James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science, and Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Erik Peterson, Undergraduate Research Assistant, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University

Rune Slothuus, Associate Professor of Political Science, Aarhus University

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