20 Jun

Will Partisan Polarization get in the way of Obama’s Second Term?


I just realized that Obama’s chances of being re-elected might be seriously compromised. Not because of any of the policies he did (or did not) implement, but because of polarization of America Public opinion. The New Yorker has a piece of his re-election, describing all (recent) presidents that were re-elected for a second term.

Since 1916, seven presidents were re-elected for a second term. Since Nixon, however, the margin of victory over his opponent steadily declined:

In 1952 Nixon won another term by popular vote margin of 23 points. In 1984, Reagan won his reëlection by 18 points. In 1992, Clinton won his by nine points. In 2004, Bush beat John Kerry by just 2 1/2 points; the smallest margin of victory for the reelection of a President since the nineteenth century.

This declining margins of victory may very well be an indication of increased bipartisan polarization of the US. This does not stand on its own. The United States are often described as being involved in a Culture War on ideological views.

I blogged about this culture war couple of years ago, for instance on: “Dispatches from the culture war”, the abortion debate in scientific literature, and the often visited “Paradoxical negative spill over of the catholics attitudes on induced abortion”. Although most of these pieces about the culture wars referred to the abortion debate, much of the current issues (e.g. gay marriage) play a similar dividing role in this same culture war.

Carmines and Woods studied the political polarization related to public opinion, and indeed show that the Democratic and Republican parties take increasingly diverging positions on moral positions.

(See an earlier post about this paper here.) Following the elites and party activists of these parties, they conclude, the mass public now is more diverged as well.

In their words:

[…] since 1984 there has been a growing differentiation in the abortion positions of both groups of party activists. Now Democratic activists are consistently pro-choice while Republican activists are equally pro- life. This evidence indicates that the differentiation on the abortion issue that has only recently emerged among partisans in the mass public was predated by an earlier and much more dramatic polarization that had already developed among party activists and elites […]

So, the increasingly polarized positions of the Democrats and Republicans on moral issues may have divided the electorate in such a way, that it is increasingly difficult for presidential candidates to ‘swing’ voters over to their sides. As a result, the presidential bonus in elections has diminished, making it increasingly difficult for presidents to get re-elected.

Carmines, & Woods (2002). The role of party activists in the evolution of the abortion issue Political Behavior, 24 (4), 361-377

3 comment on “Will Partisan Polarization get in the way of Obama’s Second Term?

  • Welcome to The Big Sort.

  • Nice piece, but you might jump to conclusions too quickly. The whole culture wars-thesis has been under scholarly scrutiny from the get-go, and when examined closely, issue polarisation in the US electorate seems non-existent. Di Maggio et al.’s 1996 AJS paper examined trends in polarization on a number of issues, and found polarisation only on opinions about abortion. In their 2001 contribution to AJS, Mouw and Sobel use more sophisticated methods to measure polarisation and did not find evidence of issue polarisation – even on abortion attitudes. So, while Hunter’s termininology of culture wars might be attractive rhetorically, there are no such wars actually going on. Nonetheless, values issues seem to strike a chord in the more fundamentalist camps on both sides of the isle, even though the electorate really doesn’t seem to care that much. So, with narrower gaps between parties, these fundamentalists could become more important.

    • Dear Mark,

      thank you for your interest in my blog, and your interesting comment. Actually, your comment is exactly why I believe science should be open: to be able to disagree and to individually and collectively further our ideas.

      First of all, you’re completely right that I just was jotting down some thoughts that sprung to my mind, without doing thorough research. And indeed, I am familiar with the DiMaggio, Evans and Bryson paper, as well as Mouw and Sobel’s response. Much of this empirical research shows that the culture war thesis does not hold, as far as the culture war thesis is interpreted as an increased polarization of the general public opinion on moral issues. So, indeed, I shouldn’t have used the term Culture War, for as you argued it strongly refers to Hunters work. the term as you

      What I should have pointed out in my original contribution, is that the techniques used by both Dimaggio et al. and Mouw and Sobel only indicate whether or not the complete population of individuals had -on average- increasingly different (e.g. extreme) attitudes on specific issues. The polarization between individuals is, however, something different than the polarization between groups.

      It is very well possible that specific attitudes in favor of, or against, an issue become more strongly associated with specific groups while the overall distribution of attitudes remains unchanged. This happens when those members of a group that have attitudes that diverge from the ‘norm’ of their own group ‘trade places’ with similarly exceptional members of another group. This ‘trading places’ can either be adjusting ones own attitudes, or by becoming a member of another group.

      To give an example: Democrats (or, more precisely, voters for the democratic party) average are more liberal on abortion than Republicans, but of course some Democrats will be conservative on abortion, while some Republicans have liberal attitudes on abortion. There will even be Democrats that are much more conservative on abortion than some Republicans are. Now, if these conservative Democrats `trade places’ with these liberal Republicans, the overall distribution of attitudes towards abortion does not (necessarily) change. The average attitudes towards abortion amongst Democrats and amongst Republicans, however, does become more diverged. In addition, as a result of these sorting mechanisms, the attitudes become more similar amongst members of the Democrats and of the Republicans.

      So, it is possible that the overall level of polarization between individuals in a population remains stable, while the polarization between members of different groups increases. Since the methods employed by Dimaggio et al., Mouw, and Sobel were designed to detect polarization between individuals, their finding of no polarization does not mean that there was no polarization between (members of) specific social groups.

      The research I quote by Carmines and Woods indeed finds that members of the Democratic and of the Republican parties have become more polarized on abortion. This is something found by several other scholars as well. For instance, Andrew Gelmann wrote a very nice book on American voting. It is called `Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State’. I quote from the first chapter (available online; link):

      What’s new is polarization -the increasingly ideological nature of poli­tics. Both parties are now more cohesive on issues than they were in the days of Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and even Ronald Reagan. Liberal Democrats face off against conserva­tive Republicans in Congress with little middle ground, and voters within each party are also more likely to agree with each other on issues ranging from taxes to gay rights to foreign policy (p. 4).

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