Economic realities and partisan feelings

I’ve noted many times that partisanship is a powerful drug.

But you would think people would be able to shake off their partisan stupor long enough to report accurately on an objective reality in which they live each day — the economy.

Many can’t.

Recent Pew polling found more a nearly 40-point gap between Democrats and Republicans when they were asked to evaluate the state of the economy.

Seventy-four percent of Republicans rated national economic conditions positively, compared to just 37 percent of Democrats.

“Well, of course rich Republicans are doing better under President Trump,” you might say. However, the shift in economic evaluations long predated passage of the GOP tax bill or any of the parties’ economic initiatives.

Moreover, the question asks about the state of the nation’s economy. Items measuring personal economic circumstances also have a strong partisan cast, but the partisan differences on national economic conditions are far stronger.

Partisan influences on economic perceptions are hardly a new phenomenon.

In 1988, at the end of the Reagan administration, Americans were asked specifically about changes in unemployment and inflation over the eight years during which he had served.

In fact, unemployment had fallen from 7.1 percent in 1980 to 5.5 percent in 1988, while the inflation rate tumbled from 13.5 percent to 4.1 percent.

However, more than half of strong Democrats claimed inflation had gotten worse over those 8 years, while half of strong Republicans correctly said that inflation had gotten better.

As large as today’s partisan gap in economic perceptions is, it was matched under former President George W. Bush.

But, in general, the evidence suggests the partisan-induced differences in perceptions of the economy are growing over time as animosity between the parties increases.

Perhaps the most salient question about these data is whether these differences are real, deeply held beliefs, or just partisan cheerleading.

Academics have employed two different strategies in attempting to make this assessment.

One examines the extent to which these differing sentiments actually predict different economic behavior.

Without rehearsing all the complex data and analysis, the evidence here seems mixed.

Some researchers have found that Democrats and Republicans actually take economic actions in the real world that reflect their differing perceptions of the economy.

If people act on their perceptions, especially in cases where monetary gain and loss is involved, it would be strong evidence that people really believe what they are saying.

Unfortunately, this line of analysis is a bit muddy as other studies find no relationship between these perceptions and behavior. However, even if people believe what they are saying, we would not necessarily expect it to affect every situation, so null findings are not definitive.

A different line of research provides more significant evidence indicating that these economic evaluations contain some partisan cheerleading and not truly held beliefs about the state of the economy.

When researchers offer respondents even a small incentive for the “correct” answer — a dollar or two or a chance to win $200 — the partisan differences are cut in half.

This suggests that the answers pollsters typically get to questions of this sort mix opinions with facts. For some voters, perceptions of facts, like the state of the economy, are heavily conditioned by partisanship. They truly believe that what their party is doing is making things better, or the other party is worsening the situation.

Others see even questions of fact as an opportunity for partisan cheerleading. They don’t really misperceive economic realities, but respond to the questions in ways designed to boost their own party or denigrate the opposition.

One way or another, when pollsters ask people about economy we are often not tapping even the perception of reality, but partisanship.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.