Do Political Party Stereotypes Fuel Partisanship?

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April 11, 2016

Public perceptions of Democrats and Republicans are not very aligned with reality, says a new study by IGS Graduate Fellow Doug Ahler and social scientist Gaurav Sood.

Ahler and Sood have published new research on people’s misperceptions of political party composition. By asking people to estimate the share of supporters of one party or another who belong to different groups, for example the percentage of LGBT Democrats and the percentage of Republicans making over $250,000 a year, Ahler and Sood found that Americans considerably overestimate the share of party members belonging to party-stereotypical groups. The study found that misperceptions are made about both one’s own party and the opposing party, but that misperceptions are more pronounced with the opposing party.

For example, while Democrats overestimate the percentage of Democrats belonging to a union by 25.2 percentage points, Republicans overestimate the percentage by 33.5 points. On the flip side, Republicans’ perceptions of the percentage of fellow Republicans who earn at least $250,000 per year are 13.2 percentage points more accurate than Democrats’, on average. Party-affiliation aside, Ahler and Sood found that on average, people think that 32% of Democratic supporters are LGBT, when in reality it’s only 6%, and that 38% of Republican supporters earn over $250,000 per year, when in reality it’s just 2%.

A recent Vox article points out that “the really important — and somewhat frightening — conclusion of this survey is that these misperceptions get worse, not better, among people who pay more attention to politics.” Ahler and Sood point to the media as “a potentially important source of misperceptions.” They write, “Strikingly, as we note, people with the most interest in consuming political news hold the most skewed perceptions about party composition.”

In examining the consequences of these misperceptions, Ahler and Sood explain that people may choose their partisan affiliation based on which party’s composition they think best describes them, however, with the reality being that both Democratic and Republican supporters are overwhelmingly white, middle-class, middle-aged, heterosexual, mainline Protestants, people’s partisan affiliations end up being based more on how they perceive the composition of the parties, rather than their actual compositions.

A recent post on the Monkey Cage, the Washington Post’s political science research blog, by Columbia University political scientist Andew Gelman summarizes the importance of Ahler’s and Sood’s finding as helpful “not just to know that many Democrats despise Republicans and vice versa, but that Americans have such factual confusion and are inclined to see each party as a collection of stereotypes.”