Strategic Frames, Value Frames, and Citizen Reactions to Elite Polarization

Download data and study materials from OSF

Principal investigators:

Joshua Robison

Aarhus University



Kevin Mullinix

Northwestern University



Sample size: 1323

Field period: 10/14/2013-01/16/2014


Elite partisan polarization has reshaped American politics and is an increasingly salient aspect of news coverage within the United States. As a consequence, a burgeoning body of research attempts to unravel the effects of elite polarization on the mass public. However, we know very little about how polarization is communicated to the public by news media. Prior to the design and implementation of the TESS study, we conducted one of the first content analyses to delve into the nature of news coverage of elite polarization. We show that such coverage is predominantly critical of polarization. Moreover, we show that unlike coverage of politics focused on individual politicians, coverage of elite polarization principally frames partisan divisions as rooted in the values of the parties rather than strategic concerns. We build on these novel findings with survey experiments exploring the influence of these features of polarization news coverage on public attitudes. In particular we focus on the how the news frames the causes of polarization and how these disparate causal frames influence attitudes toward politics. We show that Independents report significantly less political interest, trust, and efficacy when polarization is made salient and this is particularly evident when a cause of polarization is mentioned. The study has important implications for our understanding of the consequences of elite polarization – and how polarization is communicated – for public opinion and political behavior in democratic politics.


H1: We expect to see decreased political trust and efficacy among Republicans and Independents when elite partisan polarization is made salient, with uncertain expectations concerning political interest.

H2: We expect that linking polarization to the strategic considerations of parties will lead to negative effects on political trust, efficacy, and interest with this last effect particularly likely among Independents.

H3: Describing polarization as caused by differences in the values of the parties will lead to positive changes on our attitude measures (more trust, interest, and efficacy).

Experimental Manipulations
The salience of elite partisan polarization.
The causal description of polarization (no cause, strategic, or values)
The presence or absence of party endorsements in policy descriptions

Political interest:
"How interested are you in information about what's going on in government and politics?"

Political trust and efficacy:
"How much of the time do you think you can trust the government in Washington to do what is right?"
"Please tell me how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statement: The government is really run for the benefit of all the people."
"How much can people like you affect what the government does?"
"How much do government officials care what people like you think?"

Summary of Results

When elite partisan polarization is salient in news media, Independents report significantly less political interest, trust, and efficacy and that this appears to occur particularly when a cause for the polarization is mentioned. Our key conclusion is that the consequences of elite polarization for preference formation and the citizen attitudes toward politics are highly contingent on the manner in which partisan divisions are communicated to the public.