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Compassionate Democrats and Tough Republicans: How Ideology Shapes Partisan Stereotypes

Abstract

Trait stereotypes are a fundamental form of social cognition that influence public opinion. A long line of literature has established partisan stereotypes of politicians, but we know less about the source of these stereotypes and whether they apply to partisans in the mass public. Building on moral psychology, I argue that the public holds clear stereotypes about the moral character of mass partisans and that these stereotypes are rooted in ideology. Using a national survey, I show that Democrats and Republicans prioritize different aspects of moral character, but that these differences are more strongly linked to political ideology than partisan identity. Next, I show that much of the public holds trait stereotypes about mass partisans that reflect these differences in trait importance. Finally, I provide experimental evidence that people use partisan cues to draw stereotypical inferences about individuals, but that these inferences are more responsive to ideological information than partisan cues. Overall, the results suggest that partisan stereotypes are not merely outgroup animus, but reflect the values and motivations that differentiate the parties.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Data and replication code are available in the Political Behavior dataverse (https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/T4GBDS).

  2. 2.

    For related theoretical frameworks, see Lakoff (2010), Schwartz (1992), and Gastil et al. (2011).

  3. 3.

    See Online Appendix for sample descriptive statistics.

  4. 4.

    The other half of the sample answered the same questions regarding the traits they value in co-partisans. These results are analyzed elsewhere.

  5. 5.

    Moreover, common measures of ideological self-identification are prone to measurement error due to differing interpretations of the terms (e.g., Simas 2018).

  6. 6.

    Although ideology is arguably better represented by at least two dimensions (Feldman and Johnston 2014), I am forced to rely on a single dimension due to the limited set of issue attitudes measured in the CCES.

  7. 7.

    These specific control variables were selected as they are likely to be correlated with partisanship, ideology, and views about morality, and they are also plausibly prior to partisan identity and ideology.

  8. 8.

    None of the substantive conclusions reported here change when correcting for multiple comparisons (Benjamini and Hochberg 1995).

  9. 9.

    Once again, substantive conclusions are unaffected by the correction for multiple comparisons.

  10. 10.

    Moreover, the coefficient for ideology was significantly different from the coefficient for partisanship in every case (ps < 0.05) with the exception of wholesome (p = 0.19).

  11. 11.

    To measure political awareness, I scale together two factual knowledge items (control of the House and Senate), political interest, and attention to the news using a hybrid item response model.

  12. 12.

    As an example, a Republican would receive a positive score for compassion (indicating an advantage for Democrats) if he rated Republicans a 5 on all traits and rated Democrats a 4 on compassion, but a 3 on the remaining traits.

  13. 13.

    For example, this sample leans Democratic, skewing the raw trait scores in favor of Democrats.

  14. 14.

    The substantive conclusions are unchanged by the correction for multiple comparisons.

  15. 15.

    The small size of this subsample (n = 145) makes estimates uncertain, but independents rate Democrats as more compassionate and fair-minded, though only the former effect is statistically significant. Independents also rate Republicans relatively higher on respectful, loyal and wholesome, though only respectful is statistically significant.

  16. 16.

    Political sophistication is positively related to the strength of partisan stereotypes among Democrats (r = 0.39), but not among Republicans (r = − 0.04).

  17. 17.

    I initially recruited 575 respondents. However, to address recent concerns about fraudulent respondents on MTurk, I removed respondents whose IP address indicated they were not located in the U.S. or were using a virtual private server to mask their location (Kennedy et al. 2018). Results are substantively similar when using the full sample (see Online Appendix).

  18. 18.

    This study was preceded by a similar study that did not include the experimental conditions with ideological information but no party cues. These results are similar and are shown in the Appendix. Respondents who participated in the first study were not allowed to participate in the second.

  19. 19.

    See Online Appendix for sample descriptive statistics.

  20. 20.

    The issues used were: government provision of services, same-sex marriage, government involvement in health care, environmental regulation, welfare benefits, foreign intervention, taxes and spending, undocumented immigrants, climate change, privacy and civil liberties, police reform, and gender identity.

  21. 21.

    These two trait terms also seem to do a better job tapping into the intended latent dimension according to a factor analysis (Clifford 2018).

  22. 22.

    As a manipulation check, respondents were also asked to rate the target’s ideology on a 7-point scale.

  23. 23.

    The manipulation check supports this claim. When issue information is absent, the Democrat and Republican were perceived as further apart ideologically (difference = 2.88, p < 0.001) than when both candidates were ideologically moderate (difference = 1.92, p < 0.001). This difference-in-differences is statistically significant (b = 0.97, p < 0.001), demonstrating that the manipulation worked. However, respondents still clearly perceive an ideological difference between the two moderate partisans, demonstrating the ideology manipulation is imperfect.

  24. 24.

    The results are also quite similar when disaggregating the index into individual traits, though Republicans do not tend to associate fairness with liberalism. See the Online Appendix for details.

  25. 25.

    As an additional test, I specified an interactive model that allowed each of the nine treatment effects to vary by levels of political sophistication (see Appendix for full model details). After correcting for multiple comparisons, none of the nine interaction terms are statistically significant (ps > 0.10).

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Clifford, S. Compassionate Democrats and Tough Republicans: How Ideology Shapes Partisan Stereotypes. Polit Behav 42, 1269–1293 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-019-09542-z

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Keywords

  • Stereotypes
  • Morality
  • Partisanship
  • Ideology
  • Character traits