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Academic Minute

Dr. Leaf Van Boven, University of Colorado Boulder – Political Polarization

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Leaf Van Boven of the University of Colorado Boulder explains the gap between the perception of political polarization and reality.

Leaf Van Boven is an associate professor of social psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. His lab  investigates the everyday interrelations between emotion, decisions, and judgments and people's intuitions about those interrelations. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University.

About Dr. Van Boven

Dr. Leaf Van Boven – Political Polarization

Many people see stark political polarization among everyday Americans. Other people believe that everyday American polarization is starkly exaggerated. Why do some people perceive more polarization than others? Who is right?

My colleagues and I have examined these questions in two papers. In October 2008, we surveyed a nationally representative sample, just before the Presidential Election. We asked respondents about their own support for candidates Obama and McCain, and about the distribution of Americans’ support for Obama and McCain.

We also analyzed surveys of nationally representative samples that were conducted between 1970 and 2004 as part of the American National Election Studies. Respondents reported their attitudes toward partisan issues, such as whether the government should increase spending and services (a liberal stance) or decrease spending and services (a conservative stance). Respondents also estimated the attitudes of other Democrats and of other Republicans.

Three findings were clear. First, the more strongly people personally identified as Democrat or Republican, the more polarized they perceived Americans to be. This was true for every issue in every year surveyed.

Second, the more extreme people were in their own political attitudes, the more polarization they perceived among Americans. In 2008, for example, the more extreme people were in their support or opposition to Obama and McCain, the more polarized people perceived Americans to be in their attitudes toward Obama and McCain.

Finally, most people overestimate American political polarization. People estimated the difference between Democrats and Republicans to be about twice as large as it really is. In fact, every year since 1970, people have overestimated the partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans on every issue that was measured.

These data clearly show that people overestimate American political polarization. And this overestimation is largest among strong partisans with extreme attitudes.

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