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Clearer Cues, More Consistent Voters: A Benefit of Elite Polarization

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Scholars typically argue that elite polarization has only negative consequences for American politics. I challenge this view by demonstrating that elite polarization, by clarifying where the parties stand on the issues of the day, causes ordinary voters to adopt more consistent attitudes. Scholars have made such claims in the past, but because only observational data has been available, demonstrating a cause-and-effect relationship has proven to be difficult. I use original experiments to verify that there is a small but significant causal link between elite polarization and voter consistency. These findings have important normative implications for our understanding of the consequences of elite polarization, the role of political parties in a modern democracy, and the standards scholars use to assess citizen competence and participation.

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  1. Throughout the paper, when I speak of elites, I follow Lee’s 2002 definition: elites are elected officials who have some control over policy (see also Zaller 1992). Functionally, elites are what Fiorina et al. (2006) label the “political class.”

  2. Converse focused on voters’ ideologies, not on attitude consistency. But if citizens possess ideologies, they will necessarily possess consistent attitudes.

  3. Comparisons between the U.S. and Europe also support this argument. European elites are more ideologically distinct than their American counterparts, and as a result, European voters hold more consistent attitudes (Niemi and Westholm 1984; Fuchs and Klingemann 1990).

  4. Others argue that declining response rates give the illusion of increasing consistency (Converse 2006). The mass public is not any more consistent than they were fifty years ago, but the reluctance of low-information voters to speak to interviewers makes the public appear to be more consistent.

  5. This theory assumes that as elite polarization increases, more voters will be able to correctly identify where elites stand on the issues of the day. For evidence supporting this assumption, see Hetherington (2001) and Levendusky (2009).

  6. Although these examples come from high-salience issues, the same mechanism works on low-salience issues as well. The limitation, however, is that voters are less likely to know where elites stand on these more obscure issues.

  7. As in many earlier studies (e.g., Converse 1964), I define consistency along a single left-right dimension.

  8. As a randomization check, a joint test of statistical significance reveals treatment assignment is not predictable based on demographic characteristics, ideology, and partisanship (χ2 = 19, p = 0.78).

  9. These figures have been edited slightly for publication. For screenshots of the actual prompts seen by survey respondents, see the supplemental materials available at the author’s website [].

  10. My design parallels Mutz’s (2005) study of social trust. To study the effects of trust on behavior, she changes subjects’ levels of trust using a story from Reader’s Digest. In the real world, many things beyond a simple news story alter trust, but that’s not the issue: because she changes levels of trust, her experiments speak to the ramifications of those changes. The same logic holds here: my manipulations do not exactly mimic the real world, but that is not particularly problematic given that they do shift respondent’s beliefs about elite polarization. For more on the general point about the relationship between realism and external validity, see Carlsmith et al. (1989), Berkowitz and Donnerstein (1982), and Anderson and Bushman (1997).

  11. Alternatively, they could also simulate a situation where elites switch positions on an issue, and subjects need to learn anew how party maps onto the issue.

  12. I pool across issues in the interest of simplicity. I have also re-estimated the results separately by issue and the substantive results remain the same.

  13. Here, I use fixed/random effects to control for any un-modeled issue- or person-specific variation (see, more generally, Wooldridge 2000).

  14. While some authors argue elite polarization may have some positive effects (e.g., Sinclair 2006; Abramowitz and Saunders 2008), most have been more skeptical.


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I would like to thank John Bullock, Don Green, Kim Gross, Jon Krosnick, Neil Malhotra, Diana Mutz, Paul Sniderman, Chris Wlezien, and seminar participants at Temple University and the 2008 APSA meetings for helpful comments. Special thanks go to Diana Mutz and the Institute for the Study of Citizens and Politics for generously funding this research.

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Correspondence to Matthew S. Levendusky.



Survey Items

This appendix gives additional details on the survey items administered. Knowledge Networks fielded the survey during November 2007 (from 12 November until 19 November). A total of 2,557 respondents were invited to participate in the poll, with 1,763 completed responses for a completion rate of 69%.

The survey asked respondents for their opinion on five issues: adding additional external review of the environmental impact to Army Corps of Engineers Projects, whether the federal government or private companies should maintain control of air traffic controllers, whether the federal government should lift the ban on coastal drilling, whether rules permitting deregulation of electricity markets should be enacted, and whether the federal government of state governments should have the primary responsibility for job training programs. The original source of each issue (e.g., the interest group that scored each key vote) is available from the author upon request.

As I discussed in the body of the paper, all of these issues come from the lists of “key votes” generated by interest groups and various politically focused media outlets (e.g., National Journal). As such, all of these issues are ones where a well-informed respondent could identify the parties’ positions without much additional information, again helping to ensure that any effects of the treatment are not simply functions of giving respondents totally obscure issues. So these issues strike a nice balance between being salient enough to be selected by key interest groups and still tap into fundamental debates in American politics (e.g., the amount of government intervention into the economy, balancing economic development versus environmental protection, balancing federal versus state control), yet are low salience enough to allow me to actually test my theory.

List of Survey Questions

Introductory Text

Please read about each issue

[IF MODERATE OR POLARIZED CONDITIONS: and study the positions of the two parties. After you’ve had a chance to study the positions of the parties, then move onto the next screen to register your own opinion on each issue.

For each policy, we will tell you where members of Congress from both parties stand. The data comes from a scientific study conducted by the Congressional Research Center for the official Congressional Record. The opinions of Democrats are shown with blue stick-people and Republicans are shown with red stick-people. Each symbol you see on the screen symbolizes 25 members of Congress, so the more symbols by a position, the more members of Congress agree with a position.]

[IF CONTROL: and then use the scale to tell us what you think about this issue.

Army Corps of Engineers: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a federal government agency that develops the nationâ™s waterways. For example, the Corps helps to design most of the nationâ™s dams and flood control projects. Recently, some have argued that more independent review of Corps projects by outside engineers is needed to protect environmentally sensitive areas. Critics disagree, and argue that these reviews add unnecessary costs and slow down development too much.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree that more independent review of Corps projects is needed?

Strongly agree

Somewhat agree

Neither agree nor disagree

Somewhat disagree

Strongly disagree

Air Traffic Controllers: Air traffic controllers are currently employees of the U.S. government. Some people have proposed allowing private firms, rather than the federal government, to be in charge of air traffic controllers.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with allowing private companies to control air traffic controllers?

Coastal Drilling: Drilling for oil and natural gas is currently prohibited along most areas of the U.S. coastline. Some people have proposed eliminating this restriction, which would result in more exploration for oil and natural gas along the U.S. coast.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with maintaining the ban on coastal drilling?

Job Training Programs: The federal government currently has the primary responsibility for developing and carrying out many types of job-training programs. Some people have argued that the federal government should instead allow state governments to have primary control over these job-training programs.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with giving state governments primary control over job-training programs?

Electricity Deregulation: The rates power companies charge consumers for electricity are currently regulated by state and federal laws. Some people want to eliminate these laws and allow market forces to set the price of electricity.

How about you? Do you agree or disagree with eliminating government regulation of electricity rates?

A few moments ago, we asked you about your attitude on a series of recent policy issues. Now we’d like to ask about how similar the views of Democratic and Republican members of Congress are on those issues.

What about the issue of whether states or the federal government should have the primary responsibility for job-training programs?

Do Democrats and Republicans in Congress take very [SIMILAR/DIFFERENT] views on this issue, somewhat [SIMILAR/DIFFERENT] views, somewhat [DIFFERENT/SIMILAR] views or very [DIFFERENT/SIMILAR] views?

Very similar views

Somewhat similar views

Somewhat different views

Very different views

What about adding additional external review to Army Corps of Engineers Projects ?

What about maintaining the ban on coastal drilling for oil and natural gas?

What about removing the government regulations on the price of electricity?

What about whether the federal government or private companies should maintain control of air traffic controllers?

A few moments ago, we asked you for your opinion on five different issues. Now we’d like to know how familiar you are with the debate surrounding each of these issues.

With which issue are you most familiar?

Federal vs. Private Control of Air Traffic Controllers

Removing Government Regulation of Energy Prices

Maintaining the Ban on Coastal Drilling for Oil and Natural Gas

Adding Additional External Review to Army Corps of Engineer Projects

Federal vs. State Control of Job Training Programs

With which issue are you second most familiar?

With which issue are you third most familiar?

With which issue are you fourth most familiar?

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Levendusky, M.S. Clearer Cues, More Consistent Voters: A Benefit of Elite Polarization. Polit Behav 32, 111–131 (2010).

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