Ideology, Not Affect: What Americans Want from Political Representation

The forthcoming article “Ideology, Not Affect: What Americans Want from Political Representation” by Mia Costa is summarize by the author below. 

Research shows that partisan affect, or how Democrats and Republicans feel about one another, drives polarization more than ideology. Scholars suggest that the increasing loathing between partisans leads voters to desire representatives who inflame their partisan animusIndeed, President Trump often attacks the other side and some voters respond favorably to his brazen, affective rhetoric. Other politicians denigrate their opposition with name-calling and party-polarizing language on social media. If voters did not support this behavior, then why would politicians engage in it?  

I use three unique survey experiments to answer whether Americans prefer a representational style based in affective partisanship rather than substantive representation. The conjoint approachwhere multiple information is randomized at once, allows me to examine the relative impact of expressions of negative (or positive) partisan affect and policy (in)congruence on legislator evaluations. Across three studies, I find that affective partisan rhetoric is not rewarded and, in most cases, significantly harms citizens’ evaluations of legislators. Overall, people rate representatives the highest when they share their issue positions and priorities.  

In Study 1, people were asked to choose between two fictional members of Congress five times for who they would prefer to have as their representative. Each time, information about each legislator was randomized, such as whether they expressed out-party affect or agreed/disagreed with the respondent on a policy issue. I found that out-party affect was penalized; if a member expressed negative animus against the other party, they were significantly less likely to be selected than if they disagreed with the respondent on policy 

In Study 2, people were simply asked to rate their approval of a fictional legislator instead of choosing between two. An additional component was randomized: whether the legislator expressed negative or positive partisan affectPrevious research demonstrates that loathing towards one’s out-party is stronger than positive affect towards the in-party, suggesting that out-party rhetoric should be evaluated more favorably than in-party rhetoricHowever, I find that people rated legislators less favorably when they expressed out-party negativity than in-party cheerleading. Moreover, as in Study 1, policy agreement had a very large, positive effect compared to partisan affect and policy disagreement. This remains true even when people evaluate a legislator of their own party and even among primary voters.  

Finally, in Study 3, I take into account policy issue priorities rather than positions. The policies used in Study 1 and Study 2 (immigration, health care, gun control, income tax) were varied enough to provide some level of generalizability, but what happens if the issues prioritized by the legislator are more or less important to the respondent? The results indicate that respondents still care about policy issues over partisan affect. If legislators listed an issue priority, even if it was not the respondent’s top issue priority, their approval increased more than prioritizing an electoral loss for the other party. 

Overall, the paper demonstrates that affective polarization does not extend to preferences for representation. If policy issues form the basis of ideology, then voters indeed want representation based on ideology, not partisan affect. Concerns that Americans are only (or even primarily) driven by partisan animus when evaluating political leaders are overblown. And politicians who often take part in expressive partisanship may thus be out of line with what their constituents want.  

About the Author: Mia Costa is Assistant Professor at Dartmouth College. Her research “Ideology, Not Affect: What Americans Want from Political Representation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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