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By Jay Cost

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Are American Voters Ideologically Polarized?

I've written recently on this blog about political polarization, noting several factors that point to its rise: (a) there has been an increase in ideological sorting among the parties, with conservatives being more closely identified with the Republican party and liberals more closely identified with the Democratic party; (b) partisan identification is a better predictor of vote choice than it was several decades ago; (c) partisan sentiment for the other side has been turning negative; (d) job approval of recent presidents has fallen more starkly along partisan lines in recent years.

The implication of these considerations is that the electorate is becoming more deeply polarized. However, we have to be careful with how far we take this idea, as recent scholarly work has shown that there might be limits to the polarization hypothesis. The evidence is mixed - and there are competing camps among political scientists. Some, notably Alan Abramowitz of Emory, have argued that polarization along issue and ideological lines has been on the rise. But others, notably Morris Fiorina of Stanford and Samuel Abrams of Harvard, have cautioned against this conclusion, asserting that while the electorate might be closely divided, it is not deeply divided.

Obviously, this is not the forum to arbitrate between these claims, and I am far from qualified to be the final judge. Instead, what I want to do today is highlight the big reasons reasons why some argue against ideological polarization in the mass public. This is the view to which I am partial - and ultimately I wish to show how this position is consistent with the polarization we have seen in voting and presidential approval.

First off, we have to stipulate the following: there is a broad consensus that political elites have become more polarized. Evidence for this abounds. Consider, for instance, the following chart. It uses congressional voting to track the ideology of the median legislator by party and region.

Ideology Since 1893.jpg

Positive scores (0 to 1) imply conservatism, negative scores (-1 to 0) imply liberalism. 0 is moderate, and I've highlighted the 0-line on both charts. So, the farther above zero you see the line rise, the more conservative the legislator is. The lower, the more liberal.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the Republican Party moderated across all four regions of the country. However, beginning around the Great Society, there was a shift to the right in all regions but the Northeast. Republican legislators in the Northeast moved rightward starting with Reagan. On the Democratic side, note that the party outside the South was quite liberal, especially after 1958. The South was the conservative faction for many decades; however, as African Americans finally won the right to vote free of suppression, Southern whites drifted to the GOP, and the "New South" began to attract different types of voters, the Southern part of the caucus has become more liberal, too. Today, thanks to what Vanderbilt's Marc Hetherington calls "the Big Sort," we have two highly polarized congressional parties: big inter-party differences and small intra-party differences.

Meanwhile, candidates for office tend to take polarized positions during the electoral campaign. Systematic evidence of issue-positioning is sparse - but the data that is out there shows that candidates for Congress typically adopt positions more in line with the party, rather than the middle of the electorate, which is where the classic economic theory of voting predicts candidates will converge. Many causes have been hypothesized: income inequality, redistricting, the increasing ideological nature of the congressional electorate, the increase of party power in the legislature, even the closeness of the party division in Congress has been offered as an explanation for legislative polarization. Regardless of the cause, there is consensus that elites have become more polarized.

But those are the elites. What about average voters? Have they become more polarized? Again, if we go only by their voting - they have. But that does not necessarily mean that they have become more ideologically polarized. Let's continue to use the same definition of polarization - tight clustering around two distinct ideological or issue-based poles. Has the public polarized in this fashion?

The critics assert that they have not. They make several arguments.

(1) It's easy to overstate the relationship between social groups and political groups. This has been a hot idea, what with the micro-targeting system for GOTV popularized by Karl Rove and Mark Penn. However, the relationship between the two is far from perfect - and it varies over time. For instance, white Christian evangelicals gave President Obama 26% of the vote in 2008. John Kerry won 21% of this group in 2004, which further indicates that this segment of the population is not uniform in its voting over time.

At issue here is whether social groupings imply political positions in the mass public. Even for a group like evangelical Christians, which is often assumed to have an almost determinative set of political positions based on social identification, the correlation is limited. So, for other groups - like gun owners, who gave Kerry 36% and Obama 37% of the vote - you're bound to find even weaker correlations between social group and political preference.

(2) Ideological self-identification has not changed much, with most voters still in the middle. The National Election Study has been asking respondents since 1972 where they place themselves on a 7-point ideological scale (from extremely liberal to extremely conservative). An analysis conducted by Fiorina and Abrams for the 2008 Annual Review of Political Science found little to no change in the percentage of each subset over the last 30 years. Respondents still cluster in the middle.

(3) The same goes for issue positions. The difficulty for measuring shifts in issue positions is that alterations in question wording can induce apparent changes in opinion, even if no real changes have actually occurred. Additionally, salient issues come and go, which makes it difficult to track slow-moving trends. So, researchers have to utilize a relatively small database of questions that have been asked again and again. Different scholars have drawn different conclusions using the same data. Abramowitz and Colorado State's Kyle Saunders have found increased polarization on issue positions - but, in response, Fiorina and Abrams argue that the American electorate is, "a largely centrist public drifting slightly rightward on some issues, slightly leftward on others, but with only very small declines...in the number of moderates."

(4) There has been evidence of party sorting, but its extent is uncertain. Party sorting is where partisans adopt issue positions consistent with their party's platform. Party sorting has unequivocally occurred over the last few decades - especially among better-informed voters - and there is a strong consensus that it is a consequence of cues from polarized political elites.

However, the core debate is not over if, but how much. Is this sorting limited to the core activist base of both parties, or a broader segment of the population? Results are mixed. For instance, Pew has asked voters their positions on a set of issues for 20 years - between 1987 and 2007 - and the average difference between Republican and Democratic respondents has been slight. Relatedly, the 2004 National Election Study found that 33% of strong Democrats and 41% of strong Republicans are out of step with their party on abortion. That's a high number for an issue where party sorting is thought to be quite pronounced. However, other metrics - including those offered by Abramowitz and Saunders - have found greater sorting. Hetherington recently argued that 40% of the population exhibits "deep party sorting" with another 35% exhibiting at least some. Plus, one's degree of sorting strongly and positively correlates to one's degree of political knowledge, a common finding since the 1960s. All told, the critics accept the idea of party sorting, at least to some degree, but caution against concluding that the mass public is nearly as sorted as the party bases.

So, having reviewed these objections, we can ask: does this non-polarization view square with the highly polarized results we have seen recently for voting and job approval?

Here, it becomes highly consequential that elites are polarized. We have to remember that a vote in our two-party, candidate-centered system is a binary choice between two individuals, whereas a political preference is a multi-faceted opinion about an issue. This can make all the difference in the world. A moderate voter who must choose between two extreme candidates will inevitably make an "extreme" vote choice, if only because there is no moderate in the race. If all we had to go on was his vote choice - we might conclude that he, too, is an extremist, when in fact he is not.

The same goes for job approval. Again, to quote Fiorina and Abrams: "People express approval or disapproval of the president's performance not simply by looking at their own positions, but by comparing what the president has done with what they would have liked him to do." This means that a president who is behaving in an extreme way will have a polarized job approval rating, even if there is little ideological or issue-based polarization in the mass public.

As I noted earlier - there are differences of opinion on this subject. I'm partial to the views expressed principally by Fiorina and Abrams. But Abramowitz and Saunders, on the other hand, are top-notch scholars who disagree. So bear that in mind.

Writing this year in the British Journal of Political Science, Hetherington offers his take:

Contemporary American politics is probably best described as polarized on the elite level and increasingly well sorted in the electorate. In the 109th Congress, Republicans and Democrats in the House achieved complete ideological separating, and the distance between the average Republican and Democratic member reached its highest point in nearly a hundred years. On the mass level, the ideological distance between partisans is now larger, but their attitudes are not clustering towards the poles even if their evaluations of specific polarizing political leaders are often very far apart.

I think this is a sound conclusion.

-Jay Cost