The Effects of Partisanship: Ben Bernanke as a Natural Experiment?

by John Sides on April 13, 2009 · 6 comments

in Public opinion

Josh Tucker sends along a nice catch:

There is a very interesting nugget of information buried in the latest Gallup report showing that 71% of Americans have confidence in President Obama’s ability to do or recommend the right thing for the economy. In addition to Obama, respondents were also asked about Democrats in Congress (51% confident) , Ben Bernanke (49% confident), Tim Geithner (47% confident), and Republicans in Congress (38% confidence). The cross-tabs on Bernanke by partisan affiliation are also particularly interesting: 64% of Democrats are confident in him, as compared to 44% of independents and only 36% of Republicans. What makes this particularly interesting is that not only was Bernanke appointed by a Republican president, but last year, when President Bush was still in office, these numbers were almost exactly the opposite: 61% of Republicans had confidence in him, as compared to 43% of independents and only 40% of Democrats. (Gallup unfortunately did not list the dates of “last year’s” survey in the report, but I’m sure that shouldn’t be hard to find out.)
While it is of course possible that the partisan consequences of Bernanke’s actions have shifted considerably since the prior survey, it seems much more likely that this is yet another example of the types of bias that partisanship can introduce into public opinion. For the political scientists reading this blog: is anyone working on research to try to use these types of “natural experiments” to test the impact of partisanship of performance evaluation? The Fed Chairman seems a particularly good case for this type of research design, given the de jure independence of the Central Bank and the fact that wide numbers of Americans have heard of him. Are there other office holders that tend to cross administrations that would also fit the bill? Secretary Gates seems like a good choice as well, although a Secretary of Defense that continues on from an administration of one party to another is likely to be much less common. Either way, would be interesting to hear from readers about any ongoing research in this general vein.

In response to Josh’s query, I would note this paper by Alan Gerber and Greg Huber. The abstract:

Previous research shows that partisans rate the current economy and its prospects more favorably when their party holds the presidency. There are several plausible reasons why this association may occur, including use of different evaluative criteria for rating economic performance, selective perception of economic events, selective exposure to information about the economy, correlations between real economic experiences and partisanship, and partisan bias in survey responses. We use a panel survey with response waves just before and just after the November 2006 election to measure the change in economic expectations and behavioral intentions in the aftermath of a major, and widely unanticipated, shift in political power. Using this novel research design, we are able to observe whether the association between partisanship and economic assessments still holds when some of the leading mechanisms thought to bring about this association do not operate. We find that, despite the very short amount of time between surveys, there are large and statistically significant partisan differences in how economic assessments and behavioral intentions are revised following the Democratic takeover of Congress. We conclude that this pattern of partisan response suggests partisan differences in perceptions of the economic competence of the parties, rather than the effects of biases in recent information exposure, information processing, or partisan differences in economic priorities and experiences.

Any others?

{ 3 comments }

Adam Berinsky April 14, 2009 at 8:44 am

There was a similar, though less severe shift in partisan support for the Vietnam war over the course of 1969. Pre-1969, Democrats were more supportive of the war than Republicans. After 1969, the reverse held (though support for both parties was low at that point). It will be interesting to see how partisan trends play out in Afghanistan at a time when partisan polarization is much higher than it was in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Andrew April 14, 2009 at 10:34 am

Adam: We have the Vietnam War graph in Red State, Blue State. But the partisan shift then was pretty small.

Also, in Joe Bafumi’s Ph.D. thesis on the “stubborn American voter” (summarized in chapter 8 of Red State, Blue State), he presents evidence showing that partisan filtering of the sort discussed above has increased over the past several decades.

Adam Berinsky April 14, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Andrew: That is true. Also, Gary Jacobson has a lot of data showing that partisan splits on war for Iraq are much larger than any other war. I still think the reversal on Vietnam, while small is really interesting. What’s your prediction for Afghanistan?

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