The Policy Polarization of Party Activists in the United States

Date01 July 2021
Published date01 July 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(4) 386 –399
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211004442
Party activists in the U.S. serve as a fulcrum between the
mass public at one end and candidates and officeholders at
the other. Activists influence candidate selection and policy
platforms through resource expenditures and their sway over
public opinion, while they simultaneously influence partisan
opinion in the mass public (Bawn et al., 2012; Carmines &
Stimson, 1989; Carmines & Wagner, 2006; Claassen, 2015;
Layman et al., 2010; Lupton et al., 2017; Miller & Schofield,
2003). Thus the policy preferences of party activists are an
integral “input” into the operation of the party system and
representation process. This article analyzes how Democratic
and Republican party activists, as a key stratum of the parti-
san elite, have moved and been positioned over time across a
variety of issues spanning the social welfare, cultural, racial,
and other dimensions of American politics.
An important topic in its own right, the significance of our
investigation is heightened because it connects to an impor-
tant scholarly (and political) question regarding whether party
elites have been polarizing in recent decades in a symmetric
or asymmetric fashion. While spatial models of politics have
been developed to explain non-convergence to the median
voter, they typically predict that in a two party system the
liberal party will be as extreme on the left as the conservative
party will be on the right (Aldrich, 1983a, 1983b; Fiorina,
with Samuel J. Abrams, 2009; Fiorina, with Samuel J. Abrams
and Jeremy C. Pope, 2011; Grossman & Hopkins, 2016). In
contrast, coalitional accounts of parties that take into account
particular aspects of American political and economic history,
along with electoral rules, allow for—and even predict—
asymmetry in party elite movement and proximity to the mass
public (Bonica et al., 2013; Grossman & Hopkins, 2016;
Hacker & Pierson, 2014, 2015; Klein, 2020; Layman et al.,
2010; Lelkes & Sniderman, 2016).1
To analyze party activists we rely on the American
National Election Studies (ANES) time series surveys.
These surveys allow us to analyze a wide range of issues
over an extended period of time (1972–2016). In addition,
unlike much of the existing work on party elite polarization
that focuses on legislators and candidates for elective office,
the ANES data enable us to place the preferences of party
activists and the mass public on the same scales. This aspect
of the data makes it possible to measure activist movement
and proximity relative to the opinions expressed by the mass
We find growing activist polarization across all issues with
the exception of gay rights where there has been noticeable
depolarization in party activist preferences. With respect to
symmetric versus asymmetric party activist movement, our
results suggest that in general there has not been much nota-
ble asymmetric movement. The important exception is on the
abortion issue where Republican activists have moved right-
ward to a much greater extent than Democrat activists have
moved to the left. Despite the general lack of asymmetric
party activist movement, there remain notable asymmetries in
proximity to the public’s preferences. Democratic party elites
are typically closer to the overall mass public’s preferences
1004442APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211004442American Politics ResearchCollitt and Highton
1University of California, Davis, USA
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin Highton, Department of Political Science, University of
California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616, USA.
The Policy Polarization of Party Activists
in the United States
Samuel Collitt1 and Benjamin Highton1
This article investigates how a key stratum of the partisan elite—party activists—have been positioned across time and policy
issues. We examine the extent to which activists have polarized symmetrically or asymmetrically and find that only on the
issue of abortion has one party’s activists (Republicans) polarized notably more than the other’s. The article also analyzes
party activist proximity to the mass public’s policy preferences and finds that Democrats are consistently closer to the public
on economic issues, and Republicans are consistently closer on a subset of non-economic issues. Our findings suggest the
need for more nuanced theories of party activism and polarization along with providing a useful lens through which to view
party electoral competition.
public opinion, party polarization, political activists, American politics

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