American politics may be more polarized today than at any time in the postwar period. While this fact is commonly lamented, it has had one arguably beneficial side effect: Americans have become better at identifying where the presidential candidates stand relative to each other — a task that has long challenged voters.
For years, the long-standing survey conducted by American National Election Studies has asked respondents to place the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates on scales measuring their views on different issues, ranging from a more liberal to a more conservative option. The graph below examines three issues: how much the government should spend overall, its responsibility for guaranteeing that every person has a job and how much assistance it should provide to African Americans. The graph shows the percentage of Americans who placed the Democrat to the left of the Republican in each presidential election dating to 1996.
The overall pattern is clear: More Americans can do this now than in the past. In 1996, for example, about 60 percent of respondents placed the Democrat, Bill Clinton, to the left of the Republican, Bob Dole. This fell to about 50 percent in 2000. But then there was a notable increase. In 2016, almost 75 percent placed Hillary Clinton to the left of Donald Trump on these issues. The same was true on other issues, too, such as the government’s role in covering health-care costs and protecting the environment.
Why are citizens better able to identify where the candidates stand relative to each other? There is little evidence in ANES surveys that voters have become more interested in politics generally.
A more likely explanation is that the parties and their presidential candidates are simply taking clearer and more consistently distinct positions on issues. This makes it easier for even uninterested voters to identify the relative positions of the presidential candidates. Indeed, research by the political scientist Corwin Smidt has shown sharp increases in the percentages of Americans who see important differences between the parties. This is true even among Americans who don’t pay that much attention to politics.
The 2016 election in particular shows how presidential candidates themselves can affect voters’ perceptions. Trump and Clinton often focused on racially inflected issues and their positions on these issues were very far apart — a fact reinforced by Trump’s charged rhetoric. This helps explain why the increase in the percentage of voters who placed Clinton to the left of Trump was particularly large (12 points) on the question of government assistance to blacks.
Of course, none of this is to say that Americans know everything they need to know. It may be disheartening, for example, that about 1 in 4 Americans could not place Clinton to the left of Trump on the salient issue of the government’s role in health care. Moreover, these numbers may exaggerate knowledge about the candidates’ positions because at least some people may simply guess the correct answer.
But it is unlikely that better guessing explains the trend. Instead, America’s often-maligned partisan polarization is arguably helping even a relatively uninformed public learn important information about the parties and candidates. This increasing clarity may help Americans demand better representation and accountability from elected officials.
Jason Jordan is associate professor of political science and international relations at Drew University in New Jersey.