Consider the findings of a recent study by political scientists Douglas Ahler and Gaurav Sood, “The Parties in Our Heads: Misperceptions About Party Composition and Their Consequences.” The authors draw on survey data to show we tend to stereotype the people affiliated with the parties – especially those in the other party. For example, Republicans think 38% of Democrats identify as LGBTQ, and Democrats themselves believe 29% do, when in fact only 6% of Democrats so identify. Similarly, Republicans think 44% of Democrats are union members, and Democrats think 37% are, but in reality, only 11% of Democrats belong to a union.
As for stereotypes of Republicans, 44% of Democrats think those identifying with the GOP earn over $250,000 per year, and 33% of Republicans think this of their co-partisans, when in fact only 2% of Republicans have incomes above that threshold. Likewise, Democrats think 44% of Republicans are over 65, and Republicans think 38% are, when in reality only 21% of Republicans are 65 or older. The authors note that respondents of all political stripes who report following the news closely are more apt to fall prey to these stereotypical biases.
Reflecting on their findings, Ahler and Sood hypothesize that widespread misperceptions of parties, especially among the in-party members for the out-party, fuel partisan polarization and skew people’s views of the parties’ priorities. Mistakenly believing, for example, that “a third of Democrats are atheistic or agnostic, or that half of Republicans are evangelical, may lead one to believe that cultural issues like school prayer are far more important to the parties than they actually are.” The authors go on to hypothesize that “people associate a narrow set of policy demands with each party-stereotypical group and think these groups have sway over the party’s agenda. This is liable to fuel more resentment and cynicism about the motivations of party elites.”