The Limits of Issue Ownership in a Polarized Era

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(5) 694706
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221106435
The Limits of Issue Ownership in a Polarized
Jamie M. Wright
, Scott Clifford
, and Elizabeth N. Simas
The Democratic and Republican parties have longstanding reputations for their abilities to competently handle particular issues.
These reputations help to simplify voter decision-making. Voters need only to determine which issues are most important in an
election, then support the party with the strongest reputation for handling those issues. As elite polarization has grown in recent
decades, the partiesreputations should be even clearer, facilitating their use in vote choice. However, the corresponding
partisan polarization in the electorate should limit the breadth of issue ownership beliefs, as well as the impact of these beliefs on
vote choice. In this manuscript, we use a novel survey experiment to prime the partiesowned issues. Our result s show that the
prime causes a shift in intended vote choice among pure independents, but not amo ng partisans. These f‌indings suggest that
polarization has not erased issue ownership, but that partisanship has narrowed its potential impact.
issue ownership, political behavior, polarization
Partisanship is the primary shortcut that citizens use to help
structure their worldviews and simplify the complex political
systems in which they live. Political parties have long-
standing reputations for the ideologies they advance, the
character traits they possess, and the issues that they own.
According to issue ownership theory, each party is perceived
as most capable or competent at handling specif‌ic issues
(Petrocik, 1996;Petrocik et al., 2003;Budge, 1983;Stubager,
2018). In the United States, the Democratic Party is seen as
better able to handle issues related to the environment,
healthcare, poverty, and Social Security, while the Repub-
lican Party is seen as more competent on the issues of crime,
national defense, and terrorism (Egan, 2013;Petrocik et al.,
2003;Petrocik, 1996;Hayes, 2005). These stable stereotypes
about the partiescompetencies help simplify voter decision-
making; voters merely need to identify the most pressing
problems facing the country and choose the party that is most
motivated and able to handle those problems.
Issue ownership may be particularly accessible and salient
in an era where Democratic and Republican elites have so
clearly polarized. As the parties have staked out more di-
vergent positions, and the public has become more aware of
these differences (Freeze & Montgomery, 2016;Levendusky,
2009;Hetherington, 2001), the public should be more able to
rely on perceptions of issue ownership when formulating
their vote choice. But, as Goggin and Theodoridis (2017)
note, nearly all survey evidence of issue ownership analyzes
the electorate in the aggregate, without separating
respondents by their partisan identif‌ication(p. 678). And
current levels of polarization in the electorate raise questions
about just how pervasive issue ownership and its effects are
once individualspartisan loyalties are taken into
As such, we examine the effects of issue ownership on
vote choice by using a novel design that experimentally
manipulates the salience of owned issues. Our results suggest
that while partisanship has not eliminated patterns of issue
ownership, partisan identity limits the potential effects.
Specif‌ically, we f‌ind that priming a partys owned issues only
has a signif‌icant effect on the vote intentions of pure inde-
pendents. Thus, while ownership is constrained, parties still
stand to gain when the issues they own are made salient.
Issue Ownership in a Polarized Electorate
Despite much scholarly focus on issue ownership, we know
relatively little about how it operates in a highly polarized
environment. In theory, ideological polarization at the elite
level could increase the role of issue ownership by making the
Department of Political Science, University of Houston, Houston, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jamie M. Wright, Department of Political Science, University of Houston,
4800 Calhoun Rd, Houston, TX 77004, USA.

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