Date on Senior Honors Thesis


Document Type

Senior Honors Thesis

Degree Name



Political Science

Author's Keywords

politics; polarization; media; social; public opinion


This paper examines the extent of polarization in the United States in the current political climate. It was predicted that individual beliefs would be less polarized than news media makes it seem because while the political parties are moving further toward the poles, there is no evidence to suggest that individuals are doing the same. Using Berkeley’s Survey Documentation and Analysis tool, data from the American National Election Studies (ANES) was analyzed to test this premise. The ANES measured individuals’ party identification. The analysis focused on those who identify as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. The survey then asked those same individuals how they felt about a number of political issues. Six issues were chosen that are considered a priority to voters (gun control, gay marriage, federal welfare spending, building a wall with Mexico, Syrian Refugees, and affirmative action). Cross-tabulations were conducted to examine the differences in issue positions across party identification expecting those differences to be smaller than the popularly perceived polarization. Further, twenty undergraduate students in a political science course were asked to guess how they thought people responded to the survey. The evidence shows that perceived public opinion is often inaccurate compared to actual public opinion. On some issues, ANES respondents answered very closely to how one might expect based on the beliefs of the political parties, but on other issues their answers were very different. The students also often over or underestimated responses to certain issues and those estimates tended to fall in line with how one might expect a Democrat or Republican to respond.

Lay Summary

Currently, we are in a very tense political climate. It sometimes feels as if there is no compromise to be found. In this paper I sought to prove that, at the very least, people did not gauge public opinion accurately. I hoped that by doing this, people may recognize that individuals' beliefs are not as polarized as it may seem at times. Survey data from a well respected study were used and students were asked to guess these survey responses. The fact that students often guessed incorrectly showed that they had an inaccurate perception of public opinion. In knowing this, hopefully people can approach politics more amicably.