Emotions and Affective Polarization: How Enthusiasm and Anxiety About Presidential Candidates Affect Interparty Attitudes

AuthorDerrick Holland,Bryan McLaughlin,Abby Koenig,Bailey A. Thompson
DOI10.1177/1532673X19891423
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X19891423
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 308 –316
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19891423
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Article
By most accounts, polarization is the problem in American
politics today. More specifically, recent scholarship has
focused on affective polarization, meaning the increasing lev-
els of social distance between the political parties (Iyengar
et al., 2012; Iyengar & Westwood, 2015; Mason, 2016).
Partisans are increasingly likely to hold negative feelings
about the opposing party (Garrett et al., 2014; Miller &
Conover, 2015), to engage in uncivil or even hostile actions
(Suhay et al., 2015), and to be unwilling to engage in reason-
able dialogue with the opposing side (Strickler, 2017). Given
this context, it naturally makes sense to consider how affec-
tive polarization might be reduced. Levendusky (2018) sug-
gests that strategies that can disrupt partisan identification
might alleviate affective polarization. However, more work is
necessary to fully probe whether there are ways to diminish
partisan identification and, thus, help mitigate affective polar-
ization. To this end, this article considers how the emotions
partisans feel toward the in-group and out-group presidential
candidates (i.e., enthusiasm and anxiety) heighten or diminish
affective polarization. It may not just be anxiety about the in-
group leaders that disrupts partisanship, but also positive
emotions about out-group leaders. The extent to which a par-
ticular emotion reinforces or diminishes partisan commit-
ments should depend on who or what causes the emotional
reaction, not just the type of emotion (Johnston et al., 2015).
Because presidents and presidential candidates are the
symbolic figureheads for their parties (Lobo & Curtice,
2014), emotional reactions to presidential candidates can
impact overall attitudes about the political parties. When
these emotions are consistent with partisan predispositions,
they should serve to reinforce polarization. Conversely, if
partisans experience contradictory emotions, it may create
cognitive dissonance (see Festinger, 1957). To restore internal
consistency, these partisans may need to subsequently adjust
their attitudes about the political parties. We expect that when
partisans experience enthusiasm for their party’s presidential
candidate or anxiety about the opposing party’s candidate,
affective polarization should increase. However, when parti-
sans experience enthusiasm for the opposing party’s candi-
date or anxiety about their party’s candidate, affective
polarization should decrease. We test these expectations using
891423APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19891423American Politics ResearchMcLaughlin et al.
research-article2019
1Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
2The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
3Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, TX, USA
4University of Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Bryan McLaughlin, College of Media & Communication, Texas Tech
University, Box 43082, Lubbock, TX 79409, USA.
Email: bryan.mclaughlin@ttu.edu
Emotions and Affective Polarization:
How Enthusiasm and Anxiety About
Presidential Candidates Affect Interparty
Attitudes
Bryan McLaughlin1, Derrick Holland2,
Bailey A. Thompson3, and Abby Koenig4
Abstract
In the context of an increasingly divided populace, this article considered how the emotions (enthusiasm and anxiety)
partisans feel toward U.S. presidential candidates may heighten or diminish affective polarization. In Study 1 (American
National Election Studies [ANES] 2008–2009 panel data), we found that enthusiasm for the in-group candidate and anxiety
about the out-group candidate were related to higher levels of affective polarization, whereas enthusiasm for the out-
group candidate was related to lower levels of affective polarization. In Study 2 (2016 panel data), we found that in-group
enthusiasm was related to higher levels of affective polarization and out-group enthusiasm was related to lower levels of
affective polarization, but neither in-group nor out-group anxiety was significantly related to affective polarization. These
findings highlight that enthusiasm about out-group candidates may have a unique ability to disrupt affective polarization and
that it is important to consider the source of an emotion response, not just the type of emotion.
Keywords
emotions, enthusiasm, affective polarization, presidential candidates, partisanship, social identity theory

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