Poll: Partisan gap wider than ever in interpretation of economic news

Pew | The Washington Post

In August, 31 percent of Democrats polled by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press reported hearing "mostly bad news" about the economy. In September, only 15 percent characterized economic news as bad.

Sixty percent of Republicans and 36 percent of independents polled said economic news was mostly bad. The poll's authors found the gap striking:

Differences in perceptions of economic news emerged after Barack Obama took office. But they never have been as great as they are today.

The poll was conducted Sept. 7-9, just after the Democratic Party finished its convention. The Census Bureau announced on Sept. 4 that construction spending had fallen from June to July. On Sept. 7 the Bureau of Labor Statistics released employment figures that many economists found disappointing. And yet one of the palpable themes during the Democratic National Convention was that the economy was slowly improving. "If you look at the numbers, you know employment is growing, banks are beginning to lend again," former President Bill Clinton said in his speech to the convention. "And in a lot of places, housing prices are even beginning to pick up."

Now, it's important to note that most fact-checkers found that Clinton's speech mostly checked out. Perhaps the Pew results mean convention watchers found his facts persuasive.

The Pew finding comes on the heels of a much-bruited Public Policy Polling survey that found that 15 percent of Ohioans who identified themselves as "very conservative" thought Mitt Romney was more responsible for Osama Bin Laden's death than President Obama.

New Republic reporter Alec MacGillis tweeted that finding was a result of "epistemic closure," a voguish term for a partisan mechanism that warps basic logic.

The Washington Post's Dylan Matthews argues that while "motivated reasoning" may be at work in such cases, UCLA Professor John Zaller's work on public opinion better explains it: "People read news media and absorb the things they read that comport with their general worldview, and then, when polled, repeat back whatever information they encountered most recently," Matthews writes.

To apply it to this case, suppose someone polled by PPP had just read a news story about Navy SEALs attacking Obama for taking credit for killing bin Laden right before getting a call from a pollster. The Zaller model suggests that would lead them, if they were uninformed or a Republican partisan, to answer that Romney was more responsible, or that they were unsure, just since the anti-Obama story was at the top of their head. But it doesn’t mean that the person actually thought Romney killed bin Laden.

Most Americans, Matthews writes, "have a casual interest in politics, and don’t have particularly consistent or well-thought-through views on most political topics."

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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