Government & Politics

Researchers: How Polarized Are U.S. Voters?

A pair of sociologists finds the answer — and uncovers political subcultures in the process.

April 16, 2014

| by Eilene Zimmerman


Sign in front of voting booth

Voters have changed their political views and their understanding of what it means to be a liberal or a conservative, says Professor Amir Goldberg. (Associated Press photo by Eric Gay)

You would be hard-pressed to find a story about American politics today without the word “polarized” in it. Talk of greater partisan differences began in the 1980s, heated up after the contentious 2000 election, and continues: Consider media coverage of the deep ideological divisions surrounding the 2011 budget debate. Yet, despite agreement that political elites — politicians, analysts, activists, the media — have grown increasingly polarized, aligning ideologically into liberal and conservative camps, public opinion surveys continue to show the attitudes and opinions of voters since the mid-1980s have not followed suit.

That stumped Amir Goldberg of Stanford Graduate School of Business and Delia Baldassarri of New York University. They wanted a better explanation of how voters reacted to extremism at the party leadership level. The assumption had been that voters reacted similarly to elites, and that the polarized debate made it easier for them to distinguish between — and identify with — either the Democratic or Republican party. The researchers now challenge those assumptions based on a new method of analyzing two decades of political opinion surveys. In a paper forthcoming in the American Journal of Sociology, they show that voters have changed their political views and their understanding of what it means to be a liberal or a conservative, but in complex ways.


Over time, the rich and secular let economic beliefs trump moral ones. But for the poor and religious, moral opinions outweigh economic concerns.

The growing differences between the two parties’ stances on moral, social, and economic issues have made it harder for some Americans to identify completely with either the Republican or Democratic party. In particular, income and religiosity appear to be root causes of this ideological conflict. Over time, the rich and secular let economic beliefs trump moral ones, but for the poor and religious, moral opinions outweigh economic concerns. Neither group fits neatly into the polarized ideology of either national party, but over the course of 20 years — since Bill Clinton’s presidency — the majority of individuals resolved conflicted beliefs in favor of the Republican party.

In determining this, Goldberg used a method of analyzing opinion data he developed with Paul DiMaggio, his PhD advisor at Princeton. That method, known as “relational class analysis” or RCA, looks at opinions on all issues in a survey simultaneously, and compares the patterns of people’s opinions, not whether they have the same opinions. “We are looking for opinions that follow the same trend,” says Goldberg. Two groups of respondents may have opinions that completely disagree with one another but have the same pattern of disagreement. For example, he says, group A supports healthcare reform and affirmative action, but not gay rights, while group B is against healthcare reform and affirmative action, but supports gay rights.

“These patterns of agreement and opposition reflect how these people think about politics — they understand politics similarly. For example, their opinions on healthcare reform and affirmative action are in opposition to their opinion on gay rights,” Goldberg says. “The whole idea behind RCA is that it compares people by patterns of opinion.”

Those patterns are then mapped, making it possible to identify subcultures of people sharing the same belief patterns, even if those beliefs aren’t the same. The RCA method of analysis can be used to identify subcultures like this in almost any area, he says, from politics to food preferences to something as intangible as the notion of “cool,” and could give businesses a more sophisticated understanding of consumer behavior and preferences.

Three Subpopulations

The researchers analyzed cross-sectional survey data from the American National Election Studies from 1984-2004. In each year they found the same three subpopulations: “ideologues,” who make up 33.7% of the electorate and whose political attitudes strongly aligned with either the liberal or conservative ideology; “alternatives,” who comprised 41% of voters and are morally conservative and economically liberal or vice-versa; and “agnostics,” 25.3% of voters who have no consistent relationship between their economic and moral beliefs. These proportions were largely consistent over the two decades studied, and that consistency stunned Goldberg: “Survey data is very messy because every year it’s a cross-section sample of different people. So, the fact that we see the same three groups year after year, for 20 years, is a staggering finding of stability in a field we know is riddled with noise.”

These subpopulations responded to the polarized public debate in different ways. Beginning about 1990, the ideologues became more polarized in their survey answers, just like the political elites, growing either more consistently liberal or conservative on moral and economic issues. Alternatives, however, grew more economically conservative and morally liberal, or vice versa.


chart of relationship between those two issue areas in voting

The diagrams plot the relationship between opinions on issues for two groups: Ideologues, who tend to go with the party line; and Alternatives, who take ideological stances contradictory to those of the party leadership. The left box in the middle row, for example, shows the relationship between opinions about economic and moral issues. Between 1984 and 2004 the relationship between those two issue areas has become stronger for Ideologues (blue) and dramatically less so for Alternatives (red), especially since 1996. In other words, while Ideologues have become more fiscally and morally conservative (or liberal), Alternatives’ opinions about those issues have become more oppositional. Shaded areas represent bands of statistical significance.

Income and Religion

Class and religiosity were the two biggest interacting factors that predicted whether survey respondents fell into the alternative or ideologue category. High-income individuals who regularly attended religious services were more than twice as likely to be ideologues as their low-income counterparts, but high-income individuals who never attend religious services were 10% less likely to be ideologues than their low-income counterparts.

Non-religious high earners and religious low earners fell into the group Goldberg calls “alternative” because they took ideological stances that were contradictory to the stances of the parties’ leadership; for instance, believing in redistributive economic policies, seen as liberal, yet also being pro life.

For these conflicted alternatives, Goldberg wondered what holds sway when they get to the voting booth — economics or culture? His analysis found that the more incompatible a voter’s social and economic leanings, the more likely they were to self-identify Republican, regardless of whether their liberal leanings were on social or economic issues. Although Goldberg doesn’t know why that is, he does know that using this method of analysis to examine how opinions relate to one another gives a much less biased understanding of the population.

That holds true outside of politics too. Goldberg says that the RCA method of analysis provides a more accurate and sophisticated understanding of people’s attitudes and, ultimately, their behavior, whether that’s voting, purchasing, or even investing. It could be applied, for example, to the world of venture capital and startups.

“You could examine how venture capitalists look to invest in new companies. They may have different conceptualizations of what has potential and what doesn’t, and those views could even be conflicting, but in a systematic way,” he says. The idea is to think about factors that influence a person’s decisions in a particular arena — whether that’s food, fashion, or startups — and look at how they relate to one another. “You are essentially taking something very complex — the motivation behind human behavior — and trying to tame it so you can understand it.”

Amir Goldberg is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Delia Baldassarri is an associate professor in the department of sociology at New York University.

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