When Do Partisans Stop Following the Leader?

76 Pages Posted: 19 Dec 2018 Last revised: 8 Jan 2019

Date Written: December 14, 2018


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 leader cues amid signals that conflict with a leader's policy message, and thus cannot properly gauge the robustness of this "follow-the-leader" dynamic. The current study explores whether two different conflicting signals---opposing intra-party elite cues and negative policy information---attenuate party leader influence on mass opinion. A national survey experiment with two parallel partisan designs shows that partisans follow their leader on counter-stereotypical policy; conflicting intra-party cues substantially attenuate leader influence in both parties and, notably, among pro- and anti-leader partisans alike; and policy information attenuates leader influence among Democrats but not Republicans. Findings reveal an important constraint on party leader power in the form of intra-party elite opposition---a result with particular relevance to the Trump era---and the limited capacity for information to remedy blind leader adherence.

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? (December 14, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3301189 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3301189

Alexander Agadjanian (Contact Author)

MIT Election and Data Science Lab ( email )

77 Massachusetts Avenue
50 Memorial Drive
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
United States

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