Partisanship: A powerful drug

Partisanship is an increasingly powerful, mind-altering drug.

It affects not only our perception of what is right and wrong, but also of what is real.

Four years ago, I reported here on an experiment we conducted for the Bipartisan Policy Center with our colleagues at North Star Opinion Research.

We presented respondents with two different education plans. Half the sample was told A was the Democratic plan and B was the Republican plan, while the other half of our national sample was told A was the Republican plan and B was the Democrats’ approach.

In short, support for an identical education plan shifted by more than 60 points among partisans, depending on which party was said to back it.

Thus, policy positions were not driving partisanship, but rather partisanship was driving policy positions. Partisanship was helping determine what voters thought was right.

Earlier studies showed that party identification colored views of historical reality for issues already toting heavy political baggage.

Republicans thought Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded Iraq and that he had taken part in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Democrats did not.

But “truth” in these situations was far from the realm of voters’ personal experiences. Republican voters did not have direct knowledge of the “facts” and relied on the implications of their leaders’ (false) statements.

Multiple surveys now show Americans also depend on partisan cues to determine what’s real in the economy — an arena that is part of their direct daily experience.

Gallup’s Economic Confidence Index is comprised of two questions, one measuring Americans’ evaluations of current conditions in the economy, the other asking about whether they feel it is getting better or worse.

Precise interpretation of the numeric scales is less important here, but one month before the election Republicans scored negative 46. In March, they were at plus 46 — a 92-point shift in six months.

Democrats had an opposite, but not equal, reaction. In October, they were at plus 27, radically more positive than Republicans, but now sit at negative 17 — a 44-point net shift to the negative.

Within days of Gallup’s findings, The New York Times reported that the University of Michigan’s venerable Index of Consumer Sentiment revealed similar partisan divisions, using a different scale and a different collection of questions.

In October, Republican economic expectations were at 61.1, a level normally witnessed during recessions. By March, they had leapt over 60 points to 122.5

Democrats had been feeling economically secure under President Obama, registering 95.4 on the Michigan scale, but fell over 30 points after the election.

So partisanship seems to override personal experience in influencing perceptions of economic reality.

Indeed, some scholars have found that these partisan perceptions lead to real world economic behavior, suggesting the economic evaluations are quite real.

Not so fast though.

It is possible that respondents are simply using these questions about the economy to cheer for their team or attack their opponents.

That is, respondents may be well aware of the “real” economic circumstances facing the country, but may choose to use the opportunity to say something positive about their party or negative about their opponents.

Three scholars from Princeton and Stanford came to just such a conclusion by offering half their respondents a financial incentive for the correct answers about economic circumstances and found the partisan difference in responses was cut in half.

It’s good evidence that some people know better.

But all the evidence suggests the power of partisanship. It may be less powerful than cash on the barrel-head for some, but this drug can alter our priorities, change our view of what’s right, and even alter our perceptions of reality.

It’s even potent enough to lead us to play partisan games with pollsters.

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.

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