Americans overestimate political polarization

With the presidential election right around the corner and politically charged TV and radio ads hammering away at the major differences between the parties, Americans these days appear to see the nation as divided between Red and Blue.

But new research from Professor Leaf Van Boven shows that many people overestimate the degree of polarization between Democrats and Republicans, and this misconception is associated with citizens’ voting behavior and their involvement in political activities.

“It is clear that Americans see themselves as very sharply polarized,” Van Boven said. “And that the degree of perceived polarization dramatically overstates the actual degree of polarization.”

Van Boven of CU-Boulder’s psychology and neuroscience department and Professor John Chambers of the University of Florida recently presented findings of two studies on political polarization at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

In one study, which included a nationally representative sample of 1,000 voting age respondents during the 2008 presidential campaign, Van Boven and his colleagues found that individuals with more extreme partisan attitudes perceived greater polarization than those with less extreme partisan attitudes. For example, in the 2008 presidential election, people who strongly supported either Obama or McCain perceived Americans as more divided than did those whose support of either candidate was more moderate.

In another study, which included an analysis using a subset of 26,000 respondents from three decades of surveys of Americans, the researchers determined that the gap between Republicans and Democrats on five-point scales regarding different issues such as the death penalty and abortion was approximately three-quarters of a point. However, people believe there is a scale difference of two points or more between the two parties. And it’s not just politics, it’s also the case with other issues such as the death penalty or the abortion issue.

“The more strongly people feel about an issue, the more divided they see other Americans,” Van Boven said.

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