September 8, 2016


Republicans And Democrats Live In Different Economies (Ian Anson, September 5, 2016, National Memo)

In a recent paper published in Political Research Quarterly, I tested competing expectations about the ways media can convince partisans to engage in motivated reasoning. The study examines the conditions under which partisans internalize their preferred "facts."

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study is a massive survey project put together by more than 50 research teams nationwide. I presented survey-takers with one of five randomly assigned articles about the economy during the 2014 wave of the study. These stories were designed to mimic the type of content they might see when visiting a partisan news source. Some of the articles presented readers with "just the (congenial) facts": these survey-takers saw a news story showing either optimistic or gloomy economic data. Others saw stories that presented these facts paired with statements blaming or praising President Barack Obama for the trend. These latter treatments make survey-takers highly aware of the agenda of the story's author - especially if they identify as partisans.

Just as expected, Republicans and Democrats in the study were most likely to learn from the news story when it reinforced their own worldview. Republican Reba believed the bad news, while Denny the Democrat believed the good news.

The surprising finding was that this pattern only held for the "just the facts" news stories - not the overtly partisan ones. In other words, partisans enjoy cheerleading for their party but are even more strongly affected by news stories that appear to be highly objective. When asked to report whether they thought the economy in the past year had gotten better or worse, partisans in these treatment conditions were significantly more likely than others to give the party-congenial response.

In the 2016 campaign, we have seen plenty of examples of overt partisan jeering when pundits discuss economic conditions. The study's results suggest that people are actually not very likely to digest economic information from such overtly partisan reports. Instead, the most powerful tool for affecting how we perceive the economy is the subtle process of agenda-setting.

As studies of media slant have reliably shown, agenda-setting is widespread in today's media marketplace. By consistently presenting economic facts that agree with the partisan narrative, free of any overt partisan language, slanted sources can subtly adjust citizens' beliefs about the way the economy is going.

Partisans may not see eye to eye on the state of the economy for this reason, but surely they can agree on some of the most basic economic facts, like whether the stock market has gone up or down in recent months.

In a second paper recently published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, I show that this is indeed the case: An analysis of a large number of public opinion polls reveals partisans tend to agree on the state of the stock market. The ubiquitousness of this economic indicator allows it to bypass even the most intense agenda-setting efforts.

We would normally expect partisans to feel the mental discomfort known as cognitive dissonance when knowledge of stock market performance conflicts with their biased economic judgments. As the stock market soars to record highs, this news conflicts with the idea that the economy is still stuck in post-Great Recession doldrums. Partisans should adjust their beliefs.

However, to echo the title of a recent paper by Danish political scientist Martin Bisgaard, I nevertheless show in survey analyses that "bias will find a way." Partisans perform mental gymnastics by changing the way they think the economy works. When stock market performance runs in conflict with the partisan economic narrative, partisans become less likely to say the stock market matters at all for the broader economy.

Posted by at September 8, 2016 3:20 PM