The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century

One of the most important developments affecting electoral competition in the United States in the 21st century has been the increasing partisanship of the American electorate. However, the standard party identification scale does not adequately reflect the growing intensity of voters’ partisan preferences. Using data from the American National Election Studies cumulative file, we show that since 1992 and especially since 2008, partisan identities have become increasingly associated with racial, cultural and ideological divisions in American society. As a result, growing proportions of strong, weak and leaning party identifiers have come to perceive important differences between the parties and to hold extremely negative opinions of the opposing party. This has led to sharp increases in party loyalty and straight ticket voting across all categories of party identification and to growing consistency between the results of presidential elections and the results of House and Senate elections. Increasing nationalization of congressional elections has important implications for party performance, democratic representation and governance. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.

Negative Partisanship: Why Americans Dislike Parties but Behave Like Rabid Partisans

One of the most important developments in American politics over the last 40 years has been the rise of negative partisanship—the phenomenon whereby Americans largely align against one party instead of affiliating with the other. Though it has the power to reshape patterns of political behavior, little is known about the microfoundations driving negative partisanship. In this article, we show how the growing racial divide between the two major parties, as well as the presence of partisan‐friendly media outlets, have led to the rise of negative partisanship. We also utilize the growing literature on personality and politics to show how the Big Five personality traits are predictive of negative partisanship. The results suggest that the psychological roots of negative partisanship are both widespread and, absent drastic individual and structural‐level changes, likely to persist. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.

Anger and Declining Trust in Government in the American Electorate

Partisanship in the United States in the contemporary era is largely characterized by feelings of anger and negativity. While the behavioral consequences of this new style of partisanship have been explored at some length, less is known about how the anger that is at the root of this growing partisan antipathy affects Americans’ views of the national government. In this paper, I utilize data from the 2012 American National Election Studies (ANES) to show that higher levels of anger is associated with a greater level of distrust in government across a variety of metrics. I then present evidence from a survey experiment on a national sample of registered voters to show that anger has a causal effect in reducing citizens’ trust in government. Importantly, I find that anger is able to affect an individual’s views of the national government even when it is aroused through apolitical means. I also find that merely prompting individuals to think about politics is sufficient to arouse angry emotions. In total, the results suggest that anger and politics are closely intertwined, and that anger plays a broad and powerful role in shaping how Americans view their governing institutions.

It’s Personal: The Big Five Personality Traits and Negative Partisan Affect in Polarized U.S. Politics

One of the most important developments within the American electorate in recent years has been the rise of affective polarization. Whether this is due to notions of group based conflict or ideological disagreement, Americans increasingly dislike the opposing political party and its supporters. I contribute to this growing literature on affective polarization by showing how differences in individuals’ Big Five personality traits are predictive of both whether an individual dislikes the opposing party and the degree to which they express this hostility. Modeling negative affect toward the opposing party as a two-stage process, I find that Extraverted individuals are less likely to have negative affective evaluations of the opposing party and, conditional upon disliking the opposing party, higher levels of Agreeableness lowers the degree to which individuals dislike the out-party. Moreover, these relationships are substantively stronger than common sociodemographic predictors such as age, race, and educational attainment.

Does Residential Sorting Explain Geographic Polarization?

Political preferences in the US are highly correlated with population density, at national, state, and metropolitan-area scales. Using new data from voter registration records, we assess the extent to which this pattern can be explained by geographic mobility. We find that the revealed preferences of voters who move from one residence to another correlate with partisan affiliation, though voters appear to be sorting on non-political neighborhood attributes that covary with partisan preferences rather than explicitly seeking politically congruent neighbors. But, critically, we demonstrate through a simulation study that the estimated partisan bias in moving choices is far too small to sustain the current geographic polarization of preferences. We conclude that geography must have some influence on political preference, rather than the other way around, and provide evidence in support of this theory. Co-authored with Gregory Martin.

The Ideological Foundations of Affective Polarization in the U.S. Electorate

Democratic and Republican partisans dislike the opposing party and its leaders far more than in the past. However, recent studies have argued that rise of affective polarization in the electorate does not reflect growing policy or ideological differences between supporters of the two parties. According to this view, while Democratic and Republican elites are sharply divided along ideological lines, differences between the policy preferences of rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans remain modest. In this paper we show that there is a very close connection between ideological and affective polarization. We present evidence from American National Election Study surveys that opinions on social welfare issues have become increasingly consistent and divided along party lines and that social welfare ideology is now strongly related to feelings about the opposing party and its leaders. In addition, we present results from a survey experiment showing that ideological distance strongly influences feelings toward opposing party candidates and the party as a whole. Co-authored with Alan Abramowitz.

Older, Younger, or More Similar? The Use of Age as a Voting Heuristic

Framing our analysis within the descriptive representation literature, we examine the use of a candidate’s age as a voting heuristic for members of the electorate across three electoral contexts (House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections) and two election cycles. Utilizing data from the 2010 and 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), along with independently collected information on candidates’ ages, we argue that voters prefer to vote for candidates who are closest to them in age. Our analyses suggest that a candidate’s age can and does act as a voting heuristic. However, the strength of these findings are dependent upon the electoral context, individuals’ education levels, and the political party with which an individual affiliates. Co-authored with Andrew Pierce.

All (Mayoral) Politics is Local?

One of the defining characteristics of modern politics in the United States is the increasing nationalization of elite- and voter-level behavior. Relying on measures of electoral vote shares, previous research has found evidence indicating a significant amount of state-level nationalization. Using an alternative source of data – the political rhetoric used by mayors, state governors, and Members of Congress on Twitter – we examine and compare the amount of between-office nationalization throughout the federal system. We find that gubernatorial rhetoric closely matches that of Members of Congress but that there are substantial differences in the topics and content of mayoral speech. These results suggest that, on average, American mayors have largely remained focused on their local mandate. More broadly, our findings suggest a limit to which American politics has become nationalized – in some cases, all politics remains local. Co-authored with Sanmay Das, Betsy Sinclair, and Hao Yan.

Crime and Presidential Accountability: A Case of Racially Conditioned Issue Ownership

Americans are anxious about crime regardless of their actual exposure or risk. Given this pervasive concern, US presidents frequently talk about crime, take actions to address it, and list crime prevention efforts among their top accomplishments. We argue that presidents act this way, in part, because fear of crime translates into a penalty on presidential approval. However, this penalty is not applied evenly. We contend that there is a racial component to this fear. Given the parties’ stances toward crime and the criminal justice system, Whites will only punish Democratic presidents (i.e., Clinton and Obama) when they are anxious about crime, while Blacks will only punish Republican presidents (i.e., Bush and Trump). We examine twenty years of survey data and find evidence consistent with our theory. Our results suggest that the relationship between fear of crime and presidential accountability is conditioned by an individual’s race and the president’s party. Co-authored with Benjamin Noble and Andrew Reeves.

The Social Consequences of Political Anger

A functioning democracy relies on social interactions between people who disagree—including listening to others' viewpoints, having political discussions, and finding political compromise. Yet, social life in the contemporary United States is characterized by a relative lack of interaction between Democrats and Republicans (or, social polarization). We argue that political anger contributes to social polarization by leading partisans to cut off ties with opposing partisans. We first draw on data from the American National Election Studies and the Wesleyan Media Project to show that the mass public is increasingly angry and that politicians increasingly seek to elicit anger. We then present results from a survey experiment on nearly 3,500 Americans, finding that the exogenous introduction of anger causes citizens to socially polarize across a range of settings. Our findings suggest that the increasing levels of political anger paralyze politics and harm democracy by influencing Americans’ social interactions and relationships. Co-authored with Elizabeth Connors and Betsy Sinclair.

Select Working Papers

Partisan Linked Fate in the American Mass Public

American politics is characterized by myriad forms of in-group bias. However, the precise nature of these biases are unknown. Drawing on data from the 2021 Cooperative Election Study, NORC AmeriSpeak, and a unique data source of over 2,700 respondents, we argue that Americans express what we call partisan linked fate -- the notion that what happens to one's co-partisans throughout the country will have something to do with what happens in their own lives. We find that over 75% of Americans express this sentiment and that this metric closely mirrors the percentage of Americans who express linked fate along racial, gender, and age-based dimensions. We then provide evidence that "strong partisans” are most likely to express partisan linked fate. Finally, we highlight the attitudinal consequences of expressing partisan linked fate. Collectively, our study both introduces a new measure of American partisanship and documents its importance for understanding contemporary political behavior.

Rock the Vote

Models of democratic accountability argue that vote choice is governed by retrospective evaluations of candidates. However, democratic accountability could also operate through the mechanism of differential partisan turnout: when voters of one party are displeased with the other party’s performance in office, they are more likely to turnout. I provide credible large-sample evidence of this mechanism by utilizing a natural experiment on over 1.3 million voters—exposure to fracking-induced earthquakes—that should be expected to affect one party more than the other. I find that precincts with high levels of earthquake exposure give a greater share of their vote to Democrats. And, consistent with my theoretical expectations, I find that experiencing fracking-induced earthquakes increases the likelihood of turning out to vote—especially for those who are registered with the Democratic Party. The results suggest that democratic accountability can and does operate through the mechanism of differential turnout.