Political Behavior

, Volume 38, Issue 2, pp 383–411 | Cite as

Partisanship and Preference Formation: Competing Motivations, Elite Polarization, and Issue Importance

  • Kevin J. Mullinix
Original Paper


An enduring and increasingly acute concern—in an age of polarized parties—is that people’s partisan attachments distort preference formation at the expense of relevant information. For example, research suggests that a Democrat may support a policy proposed by Democrats, but oppose the same policy if proposed by Republicans. However, a related body of literature suggests that how people respond to information and form preferences is distorted by their prior issue attitudes. In neither instance is information even-handedly evaluated, rather, it is interpreted in light of partisanship or existing issue opinions. Both effects are well documented in isolation, but in most political scenarios individuals consider both partisanship and prior opinions—yet, these dynamics may or may not pull toward the same preference. Using nationally representative experiments focused on tax and education policies, I introduce and test a theory that isolates when: partisanship dominates preference formation, partisanship and issue opinions reinforce or offset each other, and issue attitudes trump partisanship. The findings make clear that the public does not blindly follow party elites. Depending on elite positions, the level of partisan polarization, and personal importance of issues, the public can be attentive to information and shirk the influence of party elites. The results have broad implications for political parties and citizen competence in contemporary democratic politics.


Public opinion Motivated reasoning Polarization Issue importance 



The author thanks Jamie Druckman, Yanna Krupnikov, Georgia Kernell, D.J. Flynn, Thomas Leeper, and the Northwestern University Political Parties Working Group for their feedback on earlier drafts of this paper.

Supplementary material

11109_2015_9318_MOESM1_ESM.docx (340 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 339 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Government and Justice StudiesAppalachian State UniversityBooneUSA

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