Evidence for the powerful roles of polarization and partisanship

The 2016 presidential campaign featured two candidates who were viewed negatively even by many members of their own party. In other words, many voters may have experienced ambivalence about their party’s nominee throughout the campaign. While definitive data is not yet available, it appears that both candidates were able to overcome, to varying degrees, such ambivalence with many of their partisan supporters.

An uneasy feeling

A voter is ambivalent when he or she possesses both positive and negative feelings or beliefs about a candidate. For example, coverage of Clinton’s email scandal may have caused a Democrat who otherwise would support many of her policies to be wary of her. Similarly, a potential Trump supporter may have felt positively about his positions on taxes while being alarmed by his bragging about sexually assaulting women, his racist language, or his tendency to pick fights with members of his own party.

Ambivalence has important consequences for both attitudes and behavior. Most relevant to our discussion here, ambivalent voters may be, in some cases, more willing to vote against the party they usually support. Perhaps more likely, ambivalent voters will take longer to make up their mind, indicating a lack of enthusiasm for his or her candidate. Consequently, a candidate and his or her party will have to spend more effort convincing an ambivalent voter to cast a ballot for his or her party.

Consistent with this conclusion is research demonstrating that more often than not, voters who have a history of supporting one party over the other do not defect from their party, even when experiencing ambivalence. Ambivalence toward the nominee of one’s preferred party often declines over the course of the campaign. That is, individuals become more favorably disposed to their own party’s candidate.

Underlying these findings is a long line of research indicating one of the major roles of a campaign is to bring home ‘mismatched partisans’. For example, the GOP would attempt to persuade a Republican hesitant to support Trump. In recent elections, including 2016, the vast majority of partisans who voted have ended up supporting their party’s nominee.

The role of campaigns

Conventional wisdom suggests that positive messaging by the party, the candidate and his or her surrogates causes positive feelings about the candidate to become more relevant to a supporter of a party, and negative feelings less so. 

How might this work? With Clinton, months of advertisements and positive statements from President Obama, Bernie Sanders and others likely led to a softening of negative attitudes. And, we did in fact see her overall favorability numbers increase among Democrats.

There was reason to believe throughout the campaign that this process was not going to work as smoothly for Donald Trump and the Republicans. Trump has a habit of both starting and escalating disagreements with members of his own party. For example, from the very early days of his campaign he has had flair ups with recent presidential nominee John McCain and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.

Moreover, several Republican Senators declared they would not be voting for Trump. And, public intellectuals such as Charles Krauthammer and George Will have also disavowed Trump. Likewise, many newspapers that have historically endorsed Republicans declined to endorse Trump and some even endorsed his opponent — for example, the Dallas Morning News endorsed Clinton, the first time the paper has endorsed a Democrat since 1940. Indeed, the editorial stated that “Trump is no Republican.”

While Democrats heard members of their party consistently praise and defend Clinton, Republicans often encountered messages ranging from tepid support to open hostility toward Trump. Yet, many Republicans supported their party’s candidate — early evidence indicates 90% of Republicans who voted cast a ballot for the Republican nominee.

This presents a puzzle: how did such a unique nominee result in such a typical outcome? The answer may partly lie in the powerful forces of partisanship and polarization. As the parties have moved increasingly distant ideologically, voters have sorted into partisan camps. As a result, partisanship matters more than it ever has and voters are reluctant to abandon their party. Indeed, recent elections have tended to be far more competitive than we observed in the middle of the 20th century. The 2016 election suggests that partisanship remains a powerful force.