You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: How Gender Shapes Affective Polarization

Published date01 May 2021
AuthorHeather Louise Ondercin,Mary Kate Lizotte
Date01 May 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(3) 282 –292
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20972103
Levels of affective polarization, the animosity individuals
feel towards out-partisans resulting from the alignment of
partisan and social identities, have increased by 15 points
between 1980 and 2016 (Iyengar et al., 2012; Iyengar &
Westwood, 2015; Mason, 2018).1 The study of affective
polarization has primarily focused on the electorate as a
whole, raising the question of whether this process has devel-
oped equally across different groups (see Garrett & Bankert,
2020; Klar et al., 2018 for exception). To advance our under-
standing, we examine the moderating and mediating role sex
plays in shaping men’s and women’s affective polarization.
We focus on the four central explanations for affective polar-
ization, strength in partisanship, strength in ideology, strength
in social welfare attitudes, and strength in abortion attitudes
(Webster & Abramowitz, 2017; Iyengar & Westwood, 2015;
Klar et al., 2018; Lelkes, 2019).
Issue and social polarization among elites increase gen-
der differences in men’s and women’s partisanship, voting,
and issue positions (Gillion et al., 2020; Ondercin, 2017).
Given the gender differences in partisan identities and issue
positions, we expect to find sex differences in affective
polarization. We argue that sex indirectly influences affec-
tive polarization, through differences in men’s and women’s
partisan and ideological identities and strength of social wel-
fare and abortion attitudes. Furthermore, sex will act as a
moderating variable when political identities and strength in
issues positions contribute differently to men’s and women’s
affective polarization levels. Finally, we expect the broader
political context will shape men’s and women’s affective
polarization, with differences between men’s and women’s
levels of affective polarization increasing as the political
elite become more polarized.
Our analysis finds that women exhibit higher levels of
affective polarization than men. These differences result
from women holding stronger partisan identities and these
identities having a stronger influence on women’s affective
polarization. We find that partisan strength is central to
understanding affective polarization during each period.
Additionally, during the 1990s, when elite polarization inten-
sified, the strength of issue attitudes and ideology shaped
affective polarization.
This paper yields multiple insights regarding social sort-
ing’s effect on attitudes and how gender acts as an important
political identity. While affective polarization has increased,
there is still considerable variation across the electorate in
their affective polarization (Garrett & Bankert, 2020). By
understanding the presence (or absence) of group differences
in affective polarization, we can then advance theories about
the source of affective polarization and how to combat the
972103APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20972103American Politics ResearchOndercin and Lizotte
1Appalachian State University, Boone, NC, USA
2Augusta University, Augusta, GA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Heather Louise Ondercin, Appalachian State University, 352 Anne Belk
Hall, 224 Joyce Lawrence Lane, Boone, NC 28608-2026, USA.
You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling: How
Gender Shapes Affective Polarization
Heather Louise Ondercin1 and Mary Kate Lizotte2
We examine variation in levels of affective polarization for men and women. Using the 1980 to 2016 American National
Election Studies, we find that women are more affectively polarized than men. The effect of sex partially works indirectly
through political identities and issue positions. Moreover, sex acts as a moderator, with political identities and issues
positions have different effects on men’s and women’s level of affective polarization. Three factors create women’s higher
levels of affective polarization: women are more likely to be partisans, strength in abortion attitudes, and partisanship has a
more substantial influence on women’s attitudes compared to men’s attitudes. Breaking the analysis apart into three time
periods: (1) gender gap emergence 1980 to 1988, (2) elite polarization 1990 to 1998, and (3) hyper-partisanship 2000 to 2016
reinforces that partisan strength is central to understanding affective polarization. Additionally, during the 1990s when elite
polarization is intensifying the strength of issue attitudes and ideology.
affective polarization, gender gap

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