Revisiting the myth: New evidence of a polarized electorate

Marc J. Hetherington, Meri T. Long, Thomas J. Rudolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This study uncovers strong evidence that polarization has developed in presidential candidate trait evaluations. Unlike for ideology or policy preferences, the distribution of trait evaluations has become increasingly bimodal and clustered toward the poles. This change stems in part from a more polarized choice set, but perceptions of candidate extremeness are asymmetric, with partisans perceiving the other party's candidate, but not their own, as extreme. In addition, the increased salience of racial and moral issues helps explain trait polarization. Racial attitudes among Republicans have become both more conservative over time and more potent in explaining trait evaluations; among Democrats, racial attitudes have neither changed over time nor become more potent. Moral values among Democrats have grown more liberal over time and more potent in explaining trait evaluations. Among Republicans, however, moral values have not become more conservative, but have become a more potent predictor of trait evaluations. We discuss the implications of the emergence of trait polarization for understanding problematic features of contemporary American politics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-350
Number of pages30
JournalPublic Opinion Quarterly
Issue numberS1
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • General Social Sciences
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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