Party over Policy or Policy over Party? The Moderating Role of Partisan Ambivalence

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Principal investigator:

Howard Lavine

University of Minnesota



Sample size: 1108

Field period: 9/10/2009-4/6/2010


Despite the preeminence of partisanship as a political judgment cue (Downs 1957; Rahn 1993), recent research indicates many citizens experience a disjuncture between their stable identification with a political party and their contemporary evaluations of each party’s capacity to govern and deliver benefits to the public (Basinger and Lavine 2005; Keele and Wolak 2008; Rudolph and Popp 2008). When one’s own party presides over a poor economy, performs ineptly during a crisis, becomes mired in scandal, or fails to deliver on desired policy change, or equally, when one’s partisan opponents govern well, contemporary partisan evaluations may become out of step with long-term expectations, generating partisan ambivalence. When this occurs, citizens should be motivated to turn to other sources of information to reach their judgment confidence thresholds. This should lead not only to a deeper, more deliberative style of decision-making (as other shortcuts are likely provide less judgment confidence), but to less partisan bias. We test this hypothesis with an experimental study which manipulates the experience of partisan ambivalence, and examines its implications for information processing and judgment.


Manipulated partisan ambivalence will decrease the influence of partisanship on judgments about the desirability of economic policy proposals.

Manipulated partisan ambivalence will increase the influence of actual information regarding the details of the policy as it related to citizens' ideologies.

Manipulated partisan ambivalence will increase the extent of systematic information processing, indicated by greater recall of policy-specific facts.

Experimental Manipulations

Our experimental design is a fully between subjects, 2 x 2 design. The first factor corresponds with the manipulation of ambivalence versus univalence (by asking respondents to think about things they like and dislike about the two political parties), and the second factor corresponds with the presence or absence of party cues.


We examine two outcomes: preferences over the presented policy proposals, and number of policy-relevant facts recalled.

Summary of Results

We find support for our hypotheses. Subjects in the ambivalence condition relied less on partisanship than their univalent counterparts, and formed preferences more in line with their ideologies. Furthermore, subjects in the ambivalence/party cues condition recalled a greater number of facts than their univalent counterparts.