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Electoral Incentives and Partisan Conflict in Congress: Evidence from Survey Experiments


  • Laurel Harbridge is Assistant Professor of Political Science, Faculty Fellow, Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Scott Hall, 601 University Place, Evanston, IL 60208 ( Neil Malhotra is Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Pennsylvania, 208 S. 37th St., Room 217, Philadelphia, PA 19104 (

  • The authors would like to thank David Brady and Morris Fiorina for the opportunity to participate in the Stanford module of the CCES; Barry Burden, Jamie Druckman, Matthew Levendusky, and Stephen Jessee for comments on previous drafts; and the editor and anonymous reviewers for detailed comments and suggestions. A previous version of this article was presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Data and replication code have been deposited at the IQSS Dataverse Network at Harvard University (study number 15540).


Does partisan conflict damage citizens’ perceptions of Congress? If so, why has polarization increased in Congress since the 1970s? To address these questions, we unpack the “electoral connection” by exploring the mass public's attitudes toward partisan conflict via two survey experiments in which we manipulated characteristics of members and Congress. We find that party conflict reduces confidence in Congress among citizens across the partisan spectrum. However, there exists heterogeneity by strength of party identification with respect to evaluations of members. Independents and weak partisans are more supportive of members who espouse a bipartisan image, whereas strong partisans are less supportive. People with strong attachments to a political party disavow conflict in the aggregate but approve of individual members behaving in a partisan manner. This pattern helps us understand why members in safely partisan districts engage in partisan conflict even though partisanship damages the collective reputation of the institution.