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Polls and Elections: Opinion Formation, Polarization, and Presidential Reelection


  • AUTHORS' NOTE: We thank Phil Jones and Matt Holleque for research assistance, as well as Herb Asher, Adam Berinsky, Marc Hetherington, Dan Hopkins, Jennifer Jerit, Stacy Pelika, Dhavan Shah, and participants in workshops at Harvard University and the University of Wisconsin for helpful comments.

Barry C. Burden is a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Personal Roots of Representation and has published articles on electoral politics and other topics in a variety of journals.

D. Sunshine Hillygus is an associate professor of political science at Duke University. She is the co-author of The Persuadable Voter and The Hard Count and has published widely on the topics of American political behavior, campaigns and elections, and survey research.


The authors examine the dynamics of public opinion formation and change around a sitting president and their implications for reelection contests. Because of the biases inherent in information processing and the information environment, two distinct, but simultaneous, effects of citizen learning during a presidential term are expected. For those with prior opinions of the president, learning contributes to more polarized evaluations of the president. For those initially uncertain about the president, learning contributes to opinion formation about the president. Because the gap in uncertainty generally favors the incumbent over a lesser-known challenger, races with an incumbent presidential candidate are typically marked, perhaps paradoxically, by both a polarization of public opinion and an incumbency advantage.