Political Behavior

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 423–443 | Cite as

Pigeonholing Partisans: Stereotypes of Party Supporters and Partisan Polarization

  • Jacob E. Rothschild
  • Adam J. Howat
  • Richard M. ShafranekEmail author
  • Ethan C. Busby
Original Paper


What comes to mind when people think about rank-and-file party supporters? What stereotypes do people hold regarding ordinary partisans, and are these views politically consequential? We utilize open-ended survey items and structural topic modeling to document stereotypes about rank-and-file Democrats and Republicans. Many subjects report stereotypes consistent with the parties’ actual composition, but individual differences in political knowledge, interest, and partisan affiliation predict their specific content. Respondents varied in their tendency to characterize partisans in terms of group memberships, issue preferences, or individual traits, lending support to both ideological and identity-based conceptions of partisanship. Most importantly, we show that partisan stereotype content is politically significant: individuals who think of partisans in a predominantly trait-based manner—that is, in a way consistent with partisanship as a social identity—display dramatically higher levels of both affective and ideological polarization.


Partisanship Political parties Partisan polarization Social identity Stereotypes 



We are grateful to Jamie Druckman, Doug Ahler, participants in the Druckman political science research lab, participants in the Thursday group at Brigham Young University, three anonymous reviewers, and discussants at MPSA and WPSA for insightful feedback and suggestions. We also thank Brandon Stewart and Matthew Lacombe for their helpful methodological advice. All errors are our own. Financial support for this research came from the Political Science Department at Northwestern University. This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board at Northwestern University. The authors contributed equally to this work. Data and replication code for the analyses presented in this paper can be accessed at

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Supplementary material

11109_2018_9457_MOESM1_ESM.docx (57 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 56 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jacob E. Rothschild
    • 1
  • Adam J. Howat
    • 1
  • Richard M. Shafranek
    • 1
    Email author
  • Ethan C. Busby
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceNorthwestern UniversityEvanstonUSA

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