Polarizing Cues: Voicing an Opinion to Oppose the Other Side

Would you be less likely to support a policy if Barack Obama was in favor of it? Would it make a difference if George W. Bush were in favor it? Although there are many sources of the opinions we hold, I examined whether people are likely to hold different opinions on a policy depending on the position taken by prominent politicians. In particular, are people more likely to hold an opinion held by their party’s candidate? Does the opposing party candidate have a polarizing effect on opinion, inducing people to express a contrary opinion?

With these questions in mind, I asked people their opinions on immigration reform and housing foreclosures during the 2008 presidential election. For each policy question, participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In the control group, participants were only asked their opinion about the policy. In the treatment groups, participants read the same policy descriptions but were also given a cue that either Barack Obama or John McCain supported the policy (the candidates took the same position in the campaign). I analyzed the data by party identification, comparing the policy opinions of partisans in the control group (e.g., Democrats not given a candidate cue) to partisans in the treatment groups (e.g., Democrats given a candidate cue).

What did I find? Contrary to what one might expect, partisans were not persuaded by their own party’s candidate. Compared to partisans in the control groups that did not receive information about the candidates’ positions, McCain’s endorsement of a policy did not increase support for it among Republicans nor did Obama’s endorsement persuade Democrats. What happened if the opposing party’s candidate endorsed a policy? In a word, polarization. If McCain endorsed a policy, Democrats were more likely to oppose it. Likewise, if Obama backed a policy Republicans were more likely to take the contrary position.

What are the implications? At least among some partisans, opinion on an issue is not simply a matter of what’s inside a policy. Although Democrats generally prefer liberal policies and Republicans generally prefer conservative policies, attaching the name of the opposing party’s presidential candidate to a policy can produce opinion polarization, inducing some partisans to oppose a policy they would otherwise support. The potential implications for governance are significant. Presidents are likely to encounter opposition to their proposals simply because of their party affiliation, making it difficult to build the consensus often required for tackling the important challenges facing our nation. Governance is difficult enough for our nation’s leaders so future research needs to address how we might overcome the opposition to policies that are rooted in dislike for opposition party leaders.

About the Author: Stephen P. Nicholson is an Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Merced. His article “Polarizing Cues” appeared in the January 2012 issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association. AJPS is published by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing and supported by the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the MSU College of Social Science.


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The Editor of the AJPS is at Michigan State University and the Editorial Office is supported by
the Michigan State University Department of Political Science and the School of Social Sciences.

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