DP14617 Stereotypes and Politics
US voters exaggerate the differences in attitudes held by Republicans and Democrats on a range of socioeconomic and political issues, and higher perceived polarization is associated with greater political engagement and affective polarization. In this paper, we examine the role of issue salience in driving beliefs about political attitudes. We find that a model of political stereotypes, where distortions are stronger for issues that are more salient to voters, captures important qualitative and quantitative features of the data. First, perceived partisan differences are larger on issues that individuals consider more important. To attach a causal interpretation to this link, we show that the end of the Cold War in 1991, which shifted US voters' attention away from external threats, increased perceived, relative to actual, partisan differences on domestic issues. Second, issue salience increases the tendency to over-weigh extreme types. The increase in perceived polarization post 1991 was stronger for issues with more stereotypical partisan differences. Finally, the reverse pattern occurred after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when attention swung back towards external threats. We discuss other mechanisms, which may be at work but fail to match important features of the data. Our results highlight how beliefs about political groups can shift even when the underlying partisan differences change little, with important social and political consequences.