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Is Perceived Polarization a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

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Principal Investigator(s):

Matthew Levendusky
University of Pennsylvania
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Sample size: 1500
Field period: 09/07/2012-/12/18/2012


The past decade has witnessed an explosion of interest in the partisan polarization of the American electorate. Yet little research so far has considered the causes and consequences of perceptions of polarization. Does perceived polarization cause actual attitudinal polarization? Across multiple studies, we show that media coverage of polarization leads citizens to exaggerate the degree of polarization in the mass public, a phenomenon known as false polarization. We also find that false polarization causes
voters to moderate their own issue positions but increases dislike of the opposing party. We conclude by discussing the implications of our findings for understanding polarization in the mass public and the potential consequences of polarized media coverage.


Hypothesis 1 (H1): People will over-estimate the actual level of partisan polarization in the mass electorate.

Hypothesis 2 (H2): Press coverage suggesting the electorate is polarized will increase perceptions of polarization in the mass public compared to press coverage suggesting that the electorate is moderate.

Hypothesis 3 (H3): Increased perceptions of polarization will moderate issue positions.

Hypothesis 4 (H4): Increased perceptions of polarization will increase affective polarization.

Experimental Manipulations:

Subjects are randomly assigned to read an article either: (1) depicting the electorate as polarized (polarized condition), (2) depicting the electorate as moderate (moderate condition), or (3) an apolitical control article.

Key Dependent Variables:

Own issue positions: position measured on 4 topical issues (immigration, capital gains tax cuts, public election financing, and free trade),

Perceptions of Polarization: positions of Democratic/Republican voters on same 4 items

Affective Polarization: opposing-party feeling thermometers, dislikes of the opposing party, and comfort with being friends with a member of the opposing party.

Summary of Findings:

We find (consistent with our hypotheses) that media coverage depicting the electorate as polarized:

+ Increases perceptions of polarization
+ Greater attitudinal moderation
+ Greater affective polarization


Levendusky, Matthew, and Neil Malhotra. In press. “Does Media Coverage of Partisan Polarization Affect Political Attitudes?” Political Communication.

Levendusky, Matthew, and Neil Malhotra. In press. “(Mis)perceptions of Partisan Polarization in the American Public.” Public Opinion Quarterly.



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