Partisan Cheerleading Is Rampant in U.S. Politics

August 1, 2013

It is often heard that the U.S. electorate is more politically polarized than ever, a claim that is supported by poll data. Indeed, voters with different partisan affiliations appear to hold vastly different political opinions and those differences seem to be growing, says Sita Slavov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

It's not just that Republican and Democratic voters have starkly differing opinions. They also seem to disagree (along predictable party lines) on the facts.

  • For example, polls suggest that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to overestimate the fraction of Americans who are pro-choice on abortion.
  • And Republicans are more likely than Democrats to assert that President Obama is a Muslim who was not born in the United States.

A recent study suggests that much of this partisan disagreement on the facts is just cheap talk. The researchers find that if people are given a chance to earn monetary rewards for providing correct answers (or for being willing to admit their ignorance) on factual questions, the partisan gaps found in polls sharply narrow.

When study subjects were asked factual questions with no financial incentives, their answers differed strongly along party lines in the way that one might expect.

  • For example, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to report (correctly) that inflation and unemployment rose under President George W. Bush.
  • Democrats also tended to overestimate the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq.

However, when the researchers offered subjects monetary prizes in exchange for correct answers, Republicans' and Democrats' responses moved closer together.

  • In fact, the gap between the parties fell by more than half.
  • The authors conclude that, because polls do not involve monetary stakes, respondents may engage in "partisan cheerleading," rooting for their favorite team rather than reporting their honest assessment.

Of course, subjects who are unsure of the correct answer might still engage in partisan cheerleading: if you don't know the answer, you might as well root for your team. To test this, the authors did another variation of the experiment in which subjects were offered monetary rewards not just for correct answers, but also for admitting that they did not know the answers. In this case, they found that the partisan gaps in answers fell by around 80 percent.

Source: Sita Slavov, "More Money, Less Partisanship?" U.S. News & World Report, July 24, 2013.

 

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