Just a cursory glance at the 2012 presidential contest revealed, once again, that we live in a deeply divided nation. New research suggests that it may be based mostly on the clouded view of partisan perceptions. According to a recent survey, Democrats and Republicans see two very different worlds.
The National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago (UC) surveyed over 2,000 adults in the weeks prior to the 2012 election. In the 2012 NORC Presidential Election Survey, the NORC found that party affiliation was fundamental to the way people react to political issues, and it even spilled over into non-political issues as well.
In fact, researchers found that partisanship often serves as a substitute for knowledge or personal experience.
Respondents were asked which party they identify with—Democrat, Republican, or Independent—and they were given a series of questions ranging from personal finances to policy issues.
The subject of the economy played a big role in the survey, just as it did at the ballot box. Researchers wanted to see whom voters blamed for bringing about the Great Recession and if they thought the economy was successfully making its way out or not.
The results suggested that voters experience two decidedly different Americas. Those who live in a United States where the economy is improving voted largely for Barack Obama, while those who perceived a downturn in Obama’s first term overwhelmingly chose Mitt Romney.
Similarly, respondents who said that their own personal finances had improved over the past year chose Obama, while those who said that their finances had worsened chose Romney.
Although economic status played a prominent role in respondents’ analysis of the candidates, party affiliation remains a significant factor in determining their perception.
The power that party affiliation has in affecting political perception is not a new phenomenon. In 1960, authors of the study “The American Voter” observed that people perceived candidates and policy issues through a “perceptual screen” that was consistent with party loyalty.
That phenomenon has only grown stronger with time. The 2012 American Values Survey by the Pew Research Center found that partisan division is at an all-time high.
Researchers at Pew concluded that party affiliation has now become the “single largest fissure in American society, with the values gap between Republicans and Democrats greater than gender, age, race or class divides.”
“Partisanship has had a powerful effect on the way people see the world throughout the entire period, it’s just that the relationship between partisanship and policy views have changed.”
—Dr. John Mark Hansen, researcher and Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, University of Chicago
According to researcher Dr. John Mark Hansen, a Charles L. Hutchinson Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at UC, while party-tinted lenses have been a fixture throughout the past 50 years, the rise in partisan polarization is due to a progressively tightening bond between party identification and ideology.
“There was a pretty loose relationship between them in the 1950s and 1960s, and there’s come to be a much closer correspondence between them in the current day,” said Hansen. “Partisanship has had a powerful effect on the way people see the world throughout the entire period, it’s just that the relationship between partisanship and policy views have changed.”
In regard to Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA), for example, support for the law seemed to be based solely upon party preference and beliefs about the effects of the law. Even respondents who were without health insurance, who could not see a doctor for a year due to cost, or who were denied insurance because of a pre-existing condition (issues the ACA aims to address), condemned the law if their political identification leaned right.
When it came to determining who was responsible for controversial legislation—the ACA, the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit, the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), and the economic stimulus—the survey found that voter memory was also tinged with party loyalty, though that connection may have been a bit harder to see.
Democrats believed that Obama was behind both health policies and both recovery policies, even though the Medicare Drug Benefit and TARP were actually under Bush. However, a good portion of Romney supporters was found more likely to attribute both recovery policies to Bush. A larger number of the most partisan Republicans said that Obama was responsible for TARP.
Since conservatives often condemn the stimulus and TARP, Hansen said that he might have expected that Republicans would pin both policies on Obama. But in this case, party preference may have more to do with voters’ belief that they are backing a winning team.
“The way I understand it right now is that [voters] are firm in their beliefs that the guy who’s on their side is the kind of guy who makes things happen in Washington,” he said.
Of course, misattribution could have more to do with memory—Obama has been president for the last four years, and voters may not recall the details about Bush nearly as well.
According to Hansen, there is much evidence to show that voters look to fairly recent economic conditions to make decisions, and that they often ignore the long-term record.
“The downside of that myopia—that extreme focus on the present—is that a lot of the problems that the country faces about policy aren’t about the present; they’re about a very long term,” he said. “And that’s why it becomes such a strong, strong temptation for politicians to just kick the can down the road and not really grapple with long-term problems.”
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