We examine U.S. voters’ beliefs about views held by Republicans and Democrats. While individuals exaggerate partisan differences on a range of socioeconomic and political issues, we document that belief distortions are larger on issues that individuals consider more important. We organize these facts using a model of stereotypes where distortions are stronger for issues that are more salient to voters. In line with the model, belief distortions are predictable from the differences across parties, in particular the relative prevalence of extreme attitudes. To assess the impact of issue salience, we show that the end of the Cold War in 1991, which shifted U.S. voters’ attention away from external threats and towards domestic issues, led to an increase in perceived polarization in the latter and more so for issues with more stereotypical partisan differences. The reverse pattern occurred after the terrorist attacks in 2001, when attention swung back towards external threats. The distortions we identify are quantitatively significant and could have important consequences for political engagement as such distortions strongly predict voting turnout.
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