When Do Partisans Stop Following the Leader?

Political Communication

66 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2018 Last revised: 19 Aug 2021

Date Written: April 24, 2020


Evidence of public opinion blindly following political leader rhetoric has important implications for the scope of elite influence and normative democratic concerns. Past research, however, does not test the strength of real world leader cues amid signals that conflict with a leader's policy message, and thus has not gauged the robustness of the "follow-the-leader" dynamic. The current study explores whether two different conflicting signals---1) opposing intra-party Congressional elite cues and 2) negative policy information that gives compelling reasons to oppose a policy---attenuate leader influence in support of a realistic counter-stereotypical policy. A national survey experiment with two parallel partisan designs shows that individuals follow their leader to a substantial degree whether or not conflicting signals are present. Conflicting co-party elite cues do not attenuate leader influence among Republicans. For Democrats, although they weaken amid opposition, leader cues still shape mass opinion sizably. Providing substantially more information about the policy at hand does not make either partisan group much less likely to follow their leader, a finding that holds regardless of individuals' preexisting ideology in the policy area. Results demonstrate the broad conditions under which "follow-the-leader" behavior holds and reveal a stronger nature of elite influence than previously understood. Party elites and information fail to effectively constrain the sway of prominent leaders, who have considerable latitude in positions they can take without losing mass support.

Keywords: public opinion, elite cues, intra-party conflict, policy information, political psychology, political communication

JEL Classification: C90, C91, D72, D83

Suggested Citation

Agadjanian, Alexander, When Do Partisans Stop Following the Leader? (April 24, 2020). Political Communication, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3301189 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3301189

Alexander Agadjanian (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

525 F. Haas School of Business
Berkeley, CA
United States

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