Back in 1992, Democratic strategist James Carville uttered his famous recommendation to Bill Clinton ahead of the 1992 election: "It's the economy, stupid!" Political scientists beat Carville to the punch, though: As far back as the 1950's, scholars were uncovering evidence that presidential candidates of the incumbent party tend to win when the economy is strong on Election Day.
Presiding over a gloomy economy, in contrast, will guarantee a tortuous uphill climb for parties vying to maintain their place in the White House.
After more than 50 years of scholarly research on this seemingly straightforward relationship, new insights from political psychologists have shaken the field. Their central finding should be apparent to anyone who remembers the last time their fiercely Republican aunt sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with her staunchly Democratic brother-in-law. Heading into the 2016 election, Aunt Reba the Republican is convinced the economy is in utter shambles, while Denny the Democrat is steadfast in his economic optimism.
These disagreements have alarmed people concerned about accountability in electoral politics. How can Americans reward or punish incumbents for their performance in office if they can't agree on the basic economic facts?
In two recent papers, I take up this question by investigating how biased economic perceptions are formed and maintained. The results do not paint a particularly rosy picture of the future of economic accountability, for two reasons.
One is that contemporary partisan media play a subtle yet powerful role in forming these biases. Another is the discovery that partisans perform Simone Biles-esque mental gymnastics to maintain biases in their economic beliefs – even when they know things about the economy that go against their favorite partisan talking points.
How media bias economic judgments
Partisan disagreement about the economy is just one example of a broader phenomenon in contemporary party politics, known as "partisan motivated reasoning."
It's been described as "the depressing psychological theory that explains Washington" by columnist Ezra Klein – a description that doesn't stray far from many scholars' own appraisals. Essentially, Republicans and Democrats think differently about prevailing conditions because they are motivated to see the world in ways that help them feel good about the performance of the partisan "home team."
Ideological media sources, in turn, gain popularity among loyal partisans when they provide audiences with a version of reality that jibes with this "partisan preferred world state" – the way the world should work given partisan assumptions. "Republicans are good economic managers, Democrats are not," surmises Reba the Republican, while Democrat Denny believes the opposite.
The 2016 election has witnessed this media phenomenon at every turn. The return of 2012's "unskewed polls" debate is a prime example of this form of biased reasoning. Republicans are less likely than Democrats to tout polls that tell them their candidate is losing. Similarly, Republicans are less likely to entertain evidence that the economy is strengthening, while Democrats are dismissive of more worrying indicators.
Just the facts?
In a recent paper published in Political Research Quarterly, I tested competing expectations about the ways media can convince partisans to engage in motivated reasoning. The study examines the conditions under which partisans internalize their preferred "facts."
The Cooperative Congressional Election Study is a massive survey project put together by more than 50 research teams nationwide. I presented survey-takers with one of five randomly assigned articles about the economy during the 2014 wave of the study. These stories were designed to mimic the type of content they might see when visiting a partisan news source. Some of the articles presented readers with "just the (congenial) facts": these survey-takers saw a news story showing either optimistic or gloomy economic data. Others saw stories that presented these facts paired with statements blaming or praising President Barack Obama for the trend. These latter treatments make survey-takers highly aware of the agenda of the story's author – especially if they identify as partisans.
Just as expected, Republicans and Democrats in the study were most likely to learn from the news story when it reinforced their own worldview. Republican Reba believed the bad news, while Denny the Democrat believed the good news.
The surprising finding was that this pattern only held for the "just the facts" news stories – not the overtly partisan ones. In other words, partisans enjoy cheerleading for their party but are even more strongly affected by news stories that appear to be highly objective. When asked to report whether they thought the economy in the past year had gotten better or worse, partisans in these treatment conditions were significantly more likely than others to give the party-congenial response.
In the 2016 campaign, we have seen plenty of examples of overt partisan jeering when pundits discuss economic conditions. The study's results suggest that people are actually not very likely to digest economic information from such overtly partisan reports. Instead, the most powerful tool for affecting how we perceive the economy is the subtle process of agenda-setting.
As studies of media slant have reliably shown, agenda-setting is widespread in today's media marketplace. By consistently presenting economic facts that agree with the partisan narrative, free of any overt partisan language, slanted sources can subtly adjust citizens' beliefs about the way the economy is going.
That's not how it works!
Partisans may not see eye to eye on the state of the economy for this reason, but surely they can agree on some of the most basic economic facts, like whether the stock market has gone up or down in recent months.
In a second paper recently published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, I show that this is indeed the case: An analysis of a large number of public opinion polls reveals partisans tend to agree on the state of the stock market. The ubiquitousness of this economic indicator allows it to bypass even the most intense agenda-setting efforts.
We would normally expect partisans to feel the mental discomfort known as cognitive dissonance when knowledge of stock market performance conflicts with their biased economic judgments. As the stock market soars to record highs, this news conflicts with the idea that the economy is still stuck in post-Great Recession doldrums. Partisans should adjust their beliefs.
However, to echo the title of a recent paper by Danish political scientist Martin Bisgaard, I nevertheless show in survey analyses that "bias will find a way." Partisans perform mental gymnastics by changing the way they think the economy works. When stock market performance runs in conflict with the partisan economic narrative, partisans become less likely to say the stock market matters at all for the broader economy.
These studies help us to understand how partisans acquire and maintain biased economic judgments. While the subtle power of agenda-setting could mean that future partisans might possess very different sets of facts about the state of the economy, the latter study joins others in showing that Republicans and Democrats may share more knowledge about the economic fundamentals than they may otherwise let on.
The real concern, then, lies not only in the selective presentation of economic facts by news media. A seemingly more intractable issue is that when they learn "inconvenient facts," Americans seem to be more than willing to revise their underlying understanding of the world to accommodate the new information in line with the partisan narrative.
Rigid in party loyalty, yet limber in mind, Republicans and Democrats can deftly vault past disconfirming information to land in vastly different economic realities. In 2016 and beyond, then, we shouldn't be surprised if economic accountability lies just out of reach.