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What Do We Measure When We Measure Affective Partisanship? (WP-18-12)

James Druckman and Matthew Levendusky

Affective polarization—the tendency of Democrats and Republicans to dislike and distrust one another—has become an important phenomenon in American politics. Yet despite scholarly attention to this topic, two important measurement lacunae remain. First, what items—of the many previously employed—should be used to measure this concept? Second, these items all ask respondents about the parties. When individuals answer them, do they think of voters, elites, or both? The researchers demonstrate that most of the previously used items tap affective polarization, with the exception being the popular social distance measures. Second, they show that when answering questions about the other party, individuals think about elites more than voters, and express more animus when the questions focus on elites. This suggests that increased affective polarization reflects, to some extent, growing animus towards politicians more than ordinary voters. They conclude by discussing the consequences for both measuring this concept and understanding its ramifications.


James Druckman, Payson S. Wild Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

Matthew Levendusky, Associate Professor of Political Science, Northwestern University

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