Partisan Ambivalence and Electoral Decision Making

Keywords: ambivalence, campaign advertising, experiment, partisanship


American politics today is driven largely by deep divisions between Democrats and Republicans. That said, there are many people who view the opposition in an overwhelmingly negative light – but who simultaneously possess a mix of positive and negative feelings toward their own party. This paper is a response to prior research (e.g., Lavine, Johnson, and Steenbergen 2012) indicating that such ambivalence increases the probability that voters will engage in "deliberative" (or "effortful") rather than "heuristic" thinking when responding to the choices presented to them in political campaigns. We extend the logic of this argument to a hypothetical race for Congress, using data from a survey experiment to determine whether a high degree of ambivalence toward one's party makes voters more responsive to a negative attack against the candidate of that party. In fact, we find little evidence that partisan ambivalence promotes a deliberative response to negative campaign ads.


Abramowitz, Alan I. 2010. The Disappearing Center: Engaged Citizens, Polarization, and American Democracy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Alvarez, R. Michael, and John Brehm. 1995. "American Ambivalence towards Abortion Policy: Development of a Heteroskedastic Probit Model of Competing Values." American Journal of Political Science. 39: 1055-1082. DOI:

Bartels, Larry M. 2014. "Remembering to Forget: A Note on the Duration of Campaign Advertising Effects." Political Communication. 31: 532-544. DOI:

Basinger, Scott J., and Howard Lavine. 2005. "Ambivalence, Information, and Electoral Choice." American Political Science Review. 99: 169-184. DOI:

Brooks, Deborah Jordan, and Michael Murov. 2012. "Assessing Accountability in a Post-Citizens United Era: The Effects of Attack Ad Sponsorship by Unknown Independent Groups." American Politics Research. 40: 383-418. DOI:

Campbell, Angus, Philip E. Converse, Warren E. Miller, and Donald E. Stokes. 1960. The American Voter. New York, NY: Wiley.

Chaiken, Shelly, Akiva Liberman, and Alice H. Eagly. 1989. "Heuristic and Systematic Information Processing within and beyond the Persuasion Context." In Unintended Thought, eds. James S. Uleman and John A. Bargh. New York, NY: Guilford Press, pp. 212-252.

Citrin, Jack, and Samantha Luks. 2005. "Patriotic to the Core? American Ambivalence about America." In Ambivalence and the Structure of Political Opinion, eds. Stephen C. Craig and Michael D. Martinez. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 127-147.

Craig, Stephen C., James G Kane, Michael D. Martinez, and Jason Gainous, 2005. "Core Values, Value Conflict, and Citizens’ Ambivalence about Gay Rights. Political Research Quarterly. 58: 5-17. DOI:

Craig, Stephen C., James G. Kane, and Michael D. Martinez. 2002. "Sometimes You Feel like a Nut, Sometimes You Don’t: Citizens' Ambivalence about Abortion." Political Psychology. 23: 285-301. DOI:

Davis, Nicholas T. 2015. "The Role of Indifference in Split-Ticket Voting." Political Behavior. 37: 67-86. DOI:

Dowling, Conor M., and Amber Wichowsky. 2015. "Attacks without Consequence? Candidates, Parties, Groups, and the Changing Face of Negative Advertising." American Journal of Political Science. 59: 19-36. DOI:

Fernandes, Juliana. 2013. "Effects of Political Advertising and Message Repetition on Candidate Evaluation." Mass Communication and Society. 16: 268-291. DOI:

Festinger, Leon. 1957. A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fiorina, Morris P., with Samuel J. Abrams and Jeremy C. Pope. 2011. Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Longman.

Fowler, Erika Franklin, Michael M. Franz, and Travis N. Ridout. 2016. Political Advertising in the United States. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Franz, Michael M., and Travis N. Ridout. 2007. "Does Political Advertising Persuade?" Political Behavior. 29: 465-491. DOI:

Fridkin, Kim L., and Patrick J. Kenney. 2004. "Do Negative Messages Work? The Impact of Negativity on Citizens' Evaluations of Candidates." American Politics Research. 32: 570-605. DOI:

Fridkin, Kim L., and Patrick J. Kenney. 2011. "Variability in Citizens' Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns." American Journal of Political Science. 55: 307-325. DOI:

Fridkin, Kim L., Patrick J. Kenney, and Amanda Wintersieck. 2015. "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire: How Fact-Checking Influences Citizens' Reactions to Negative Advertising." Political Communication. 32: 127-151. DOI:

Gainous, Jason. 2008. "Who’s Ambivalent and Who’s Not? Ideology and Ambivalence about Social Welfare." American Politics Research. 36: 210-235. DOI:

Geer, John G. 2006. In Defense of Negativity: Attack Ads in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. DOI:

Greene, Steven. H. 2005. "The Structure of Partisan Attitudes: Reexamining Partisan Dimensionality and Ambivalence." Political Psychology. 26: 809–822. DOI:

Hill, Seth J., and Chris Tausanovitch. 2014. "A Disconnect in Representation? Comparison of Trends in Congressional and Public Polarization." Journal of Politics. 77: 1058-1075. DOI:

Huber, Gregory A., and Kevin Arceneaux. 2007. "Identifying the Persuasive Effects of Presidential Advertising." American Journal of Political Science. 51: 957-977. DOI:

Iyengar, Shanto, and Sean J. Westwood. 2015. "Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization." American Journal of Political Science. 59: 690-707. DOI:

Johnson, April A. 2014. "Ambivalence, Political Engagement and Context." Political Studies. 62: 502-521. DOI:

Klar, Samara, and Yanna Krupnikov. 2016. Independent Politics: How American Disdain for Parties Leads to Political Inaction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Kruglanski, Arie W., and Donna M. Webster. 1996. "Motivated Closing of the Mind: 'Seizing' and 'Freezing.'" Psychological Review. 103: 263-283. DOI:

Lau, Richard R., and David P. Redlawsk. 2006. How Voters Decide: Information Processing during Election Campaigns. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. DOI:

Lau, Richard R., and Ivy Brown Rovner. 2009. "Negative Campaigning." Annual Review of Political Science. 12: 285-306. DOI:

Lavine, Howard. 2001. "The Electoral Consequences of Ambivalence toward Presidential Candidates." American Journal of Political Science. 45: 915-929. DOI:

Lavine, Howard G., Christopher D. Johnston, and Marco R. Steenbergen. 2012. The Ambivalent Partisan: How Critical Loyalty Promotes Democracy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. DOI:

Mason, Lilliana. 2015. "'I Disrespectfully Agree': The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization." American Journal of Political Science. 59: 128-145. DOI:

Mattes, Kyle, and David P. Redlawsk. 2014. The Positive Case for Negative Campaigning. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. DOI:

Mulligan, Kenneth. 2011. "Partisan Ambivalence, Split-Ticket Voting, and Divided Government." Political Psychology. 32: 505-530. DOI:

Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. 2017. "The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider"; (retrieved 10/8/17).

Ridout, Travis N., and Glen R. Smith. 2008. "Free Advertising: How the Media Amplify Campaign Messages." Political Research Quarterly. 61: 598-608. DOI:

Sigelman, Lee, and Mark Kugler. 2003. "Why is Research on the Effects of Negative Campaigning So Inconclusive? Understanding Citizens' Perceptions of Negativity." Journal of Politics. 65: 142-160. DOI:

Smidt, Corwin D. 2017. "Polarization and the Decline of the American Floating Voter." American Journal of Political Science. 61: 365-381. DOI:

Stevens, Daniel, Barbara Allen, John Sullivan, and Eric Lawrence. 2015. "Fair’s Fair? Principles, Partisanship, and Perceptions of the Fairness of Campaign Rhetoric." British Journal of Political Science. 45: 195-213. DOI:

Thompson, Megan, Mark P. Zanna, and Dale W. Griffin. 1995. "Let’s Not Be Indifferent about (Attitudinal) Ambivalence. In Attitude Strength: Antecedents and Consequences, eds. Richard E. Petty and Jon A. Krosnick. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 361-386.

Thornton, Judd R. 2011. "Ambivalent or Indifferent? Examining the Validity of an Objective Measure of Partisan Ambivalence." Political Psychology. 32: 863-884. DOI:

Thornton, Judd R. 2014. "Getting Lost on the Way to the Party: Ambivalence, Indifference, and Defection with Evidence from Two Presidential Elections. Social Science Quarterly. 95: 184-201.

Valentino, Nicholas A., Vincent L. Hutchings, and Dmitri Williams. 2004. "The Impact of Political Advertising on Knowledge, Internet Information Seeking, and Candidate Preference." Journal of Communication. 54: 337-354. DOI:

Zaller, John, and Stanley Feldman. 1992. "A Simple Theory of the Survey Response: Answering Questions Versus Revealing Preferences." American Journal of Political Science. 36: 579-616. DOI: