Do Partisans Believe What They Say?

Markus Prior, Gaurav Sood, and Kabir Khanna write:

On factual survey questions about economic conditions, opponents of the president often report significantly worse economic performance than supporters of the president. Scholars have so far interpreted this finding to mean that partisan respondents cannot even agree on matters of fact. We test an alternative interpretation: Partisans give the partisan congenial answer even when they have, or could have inferred, information less flattering to their partisan identification. To test this hypothesis, we experimentally manipulated respondents’ motivation to be accurate by either offering them a monetary incentive, or by emphasizing the importance of an accurate answer to researchers in two nationally representative surveys. Both treatments reduce partisan differences in reports of economic conditions by about half. Many partisans interpret knowledge questions about economic conditions as opinion questions, unless motivated otherwise. Typical survey conditions thus reveal a mix of what partisans know about the economy and what they would like to be true about it.

This sounds very reasonable to me. It’s related to the idea that a survey response is like a vote, and respondents want to support their side in the debate. I’m reminded of Joe Bafumi’s phrase, “The stubborn American voter.”

P.S. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to Prior’s talk at Columbia. I took a look at the paper, and I’m glad to see it has some graphs. They could be presented much better, though. Figures 1 through 3 should be combined into a crisp array of line plots. As it is, there are dots all over the place and it’s hard to follow. Figure 4 would be better as a 3×2 grid of graphs, with 2 lines on each graph labeled directly, no codes and legends required. And Tables 1-3 should be replaced by coefplots.

10 Responses to Do Partisans Believe What They Say?

  1. Jeffrey Friedman April 23, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    Could it not mean that they know that survey results are reported, or they think they might be, so they are trying to influence public opinion by exaggerating?

    • Bradford Fitch April 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

      We do not think that is the case for two reasons. First, we conducted an identical survey in 2005 and got nearly identical data. It is somewhat inconceivable that two random, anonymous groups of staff would engage in “group lie” with nearly exactly the same order of influence factors.

      Additionally, our organization conducts a significant amount of training and planning retreats with Congress (more than 500 retreats in the last decade). This survey comports with our observations.

      • Jeffrey Friedman April 23, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

        Whoa–I was imprecise. I meant that the respondents, not the staff, might be exaggerating!

  2. John Sides April 23, 2013 at 11:21 am #

    It’s worth noting that Bullock, Gerber, and Huber have done similar experiments and conclude that most of the partisan bias in factual perceptions is sincere:

    • Andrew Gelman April 23, 2013 at 12:26 pm #


      I haven’t read the paper you cite, but based on the title in the link, I wonder if there’s a difference between economic perceptions (which can be tied to officially accepted numbers on the unemployment rate etc) and topics such as birtherism or 9/11 denial or climate change denial, where people with the minority viewpoint have the option to disagree with the official consensus.

  3. Gaurav April 23, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

    John –

    Bullock et al. have an updated version of the paper and their results parallel what we obtain.

  4. Scott April 23, 2013 at 5:02 pm #

    Couldn’t one make the argument that the partisans in the treatment conditions don’t really believe the facts they are reporting? Similar to how they are supposedly reporting things they don’t believe in order to support their team, couldn’t they be reporting things they don’t believe in order to make some money, score high on a test, or to please an experimenter? It’s great to see these self-reports move, but I’m not entirely convinced that it is uncovering their true beliefs.

  5. Joshua Tucker April 24, 2013 at 5:09 am #

    Adam Meirowitz and I describe the motivation of poll respondents to do this formally in our 2007 JOP article “Run, Boris Run: Strategic Voting in Sequential Elections” as part of the intuition underlying our model of strategic voting; see p.93-94. (

  6. Todd Hartman April 24, 2013 at 9:56 pm #

    Adam Newmark and I find evidence that strong partisans are motivated to believe misinformation about out-party candidates (rather than strategically misreporting their preferences), as was the case with conservatives and their beliefs about Obama’s religion: