How Ideology Fuels Affective Polarization


Scholars have reached mixed conclusions about the implications of increased political polarization for citizen decision-making. In this paper, we argue that citizens respond to ideological divergence with heightened affective polarization. Using a survey experiment conducted with a nationally representative sample of U.S. citizens, we find that increased ideological differences between political figures produce increasingly polarized affective evaluations, and that these differences are especially large among respondents with stronger ideological commitments and higher levels of political interest. We provide further support for these findings in an observational study of citizens’ evaluations of the U.S. Senators from their state. We also find that the polarizing effects of ideological differences can be largely mitigated with biographical information about the public officials, which suggests that the pernicious consequences of ideological polarization can be overcome by focusing on matters other than political disagreement.

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  1. 1.

    See, e.g., Dalia Sussman and Marina Stefar, April 10, 2010, “Obama and the ‘Birthers’ in the Latest Poll”, New York Times. Tesler (2012, 2013) further shows how Americans’ evaluations of Obama’s policy initiatives were polarized by racial attitudes.

  2. 2.

    Brody and Page (1973) argue that small or negligible differences in evaluations of competing candidates may be indicative of indifference and thus lead these citizens not to vote. However, Brody and Page also show that citizens who fall into this category often resolve their indifference by relying on other evaluative criteria, such as shared partisanship.

  3. 3.

    For excellent reviews of this literature, see Hetherington (2008), Carsey and Layman (2006), and Fiorina et al. (2008).

  4. 4.

    These authors implicate difference mechanisms for why affective polarization has increased.  Abramowitz and Webster (2015) argues that citizens have prompted increased affective polarization by adopting more extreme ideological preferences, while Iyengar et al. (2012) use social identity theory to argue that citizens are responding to partisan group attachments.

  5. 5.

    Based on the number of invitations sent to online panelists, this yielded a response rate of 66.8 %.

  6. 6.

    Specifically, the question text was as follows: “We hear a lot of talk these days about liberals and conservatives. Here is an eleven-point scale on which the political views that people might hold are arranged, from extremely liberal (−5) to extremely conservative (+5). And, of course, other people have views somewhere in between, at points −4, −3, −2, −1, 0, +1, +2, +3, or +4. What about you—where would you place yourself on this scale?”.

  7. 7.

    For other research on the importance of ideological distinctions for voter decision-making, see, e.g., Hetherington (2001), Levendusky (2009), and Wright and Berkman (1986).

  8. 8.

    These biographies were modeled after the descriptions provided by The Oregonian for the two candidates running for congress in 2010 for the 3rd congressional district in Washington state. Though these candidates biographies may not necessarily be representative of the average set of congressional candidates, that these candidates ran against each other in a relatively contested race suggests that the descriptions shown to subjects contain a high degree of realism.

  9. 9.

    A small percentage of respondents did not provide feeling thermometer ratings, and are thus excluded from the analyses. Fortunately, the patterns of missingness do not appear to be systematically correlated with assignment to treatment (F = 1.51, p = 0.209). The number of missing responses across each condition ranged from 60 to 79, and thus we have 1725 complete responses.

  10. 10.

    We note, however, that other scholarship treats affective evaluations as summary indicators of cognitive processes (e.g., Lodge et al. 1989), in which case emotions and political attitudes are largely inseparable.

  11. 11.

    This prediction is consistent with both proximity (Downs 1957) and directional Rabinowitz and Macdonald (1989) theories of candidate preference.

  12. 12.

    For the purposes of this comparison, we omit respondents who placed themselves at the midpoint of the ideological scale, as they would be predicted to be indifferent based on the candidates’ ideological locations.

  13. 13.

    The t statistic for the difference in means is 3.29 (p = 0.001).

  14. 14.

    The t statistic for the difference in means is 5.52 (p < 0.001).

  15. 15.

    The treatment effect is negative (−3.4) among respondents who self-placed at −1, although this difference is not statistically distinguishable from zero.

  16. 16.

    Even in the context of this hypothetical election, we find that political interest is strongly associated with the perceived importance of the election outcome. The bivariate correlation between our binary indicator political interest and a binary indicator of the importance of the election outcome is r = 0.40. The coefficient for political interest is also positive and statistically significant in a probit regression of the importance of the election outcome on an indicator for the divergent treatment condition, political interest, and the series of control variables shown in Table 1.

  17. 17.

    Seven respondents did not provide a response for their level of interest.

  18. 18.

    We note that we have also estimated models in which we included both interaction terms in the same model, both for the experimental results discussed here and the observational results presented below. We find consistent results when doing so. The main difference is that the coefficient for the interaction between Ideological divergence and Political interest in the analysis of the experimental data attenuates from 11.79 to 4.19, and falls just short of statistical significance (p < 0.117). Please see Table A.1.

  19. 19.

    Our results are also robust to include a measure of the strength of partisan identity, measured using a folded version of the seven-point party identification question that ranges from 0 to 3. Please see Table A.2.

  20. 20.

    Please see Appendix B and Table B.1 for the results of these supplementary analyses.

  21. 21.

    We obtain the same patterns when estimating linear regression models similar to those shown in Table 1. The coefficient for the interaction term between ideological divergence and assignment to the biographical information condition is −13.57 (SE = 2.88), p < 0.001. Please see Table A.3 in the supplementary online resource.

  22. 22.

    Among respondents who received the biographical information, the effect of candidate divergence on the proportion of respondents who reported a preference for Candidate A was 1.6 % points (SE = 4.6). Among respondents who received only the ideological positions, the effect of candidate divergence was 1.2 % points (SE = 4.8). The difference between these treatment effects is negligible: 0.4 % points (SE = 6.6), with a t statistic of 0.06 and corresponding p value of 0.953.

  23. 23.

    We dropped observations in which a state had more than two Senators in the same Congress due to, for instance, resignation or death.

  24. 24.

    The average level of divergence in DW-NOMINATE estimates was 0.30, and ranged from 0 to 1.19.

  25. 25.

    These years include: 1978, 1980, 1982, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1994, 2004, and 2008.

  26. 26.

    We uncover no evidence that the probability of providing feeling thermometer ratings is associated with the divergence in senators’ roll call voting records. We created an indicator for whether each respondent provided a thermometer rating for both of their Senators and used logistic regression to explore its correlates. We find statistically significant evidence that it is associated with political interest, education, age, sex, and race. However, the coefficient for ideological divergence falls far short of statistical significance.

  27. 27.

    This corresponds to question number VCF0313, which reads as follows: “Some people seem to follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time, whether there’s an election going on or not. Others aren’t that interested. Would you say you follow what’s going on in government and public affairs most of the time, some of the time, only now and then, or hardly at all?” A little more than a quarter (26.4 %) of respondents said they follow government and public affairs “most of the time.” Our results are also robust to including these responses as a continuous or four-point interval measure.

  28. 28.

    These results are shown in Table A.4.


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We thank the Time-Sharing Experiments in the Social Sciences and the co-PIs, Jeremy Freese and Penny Visser, for funding the survey experiment component of this project. We also thank Betsy Sinclair and two anonymous TESS reviewers for their suggestions and feedback in designing the experiment. Finally, we are grateful to the Editor and three anonymous reviewers for insightful comments and criticisms on earlier versions of the manuscript. The data and replication files for this study can be accessed via the Political Behavior Dataverse at

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Correspondence to Jon C. Rogowski.

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Rogowski, J.C., Sutherland, J.L. How Ideology Fuels Affective Polarization. Polit Behav 38, 485–508 (2016).

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  • Polarization
  • Ideology
  • Electoral competition
  • Affect