“There has always been something of a partisan divide on the question of making ends meet based on who controls the White House,” Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray wrote. “But the huge shift in this poll, driven mostly by Republicans, begs the question of whether we are measuring the primacy of partisan identity more than an accurate self-assessment of economic conditions at home.”
That ambiguity can make it difficult to figure out the extent to which people mean what they tell pollsters — a challenge that has key implications for understanding public opinion not only on the economy, but also on everything from vaccine refusal to a susceptibility to political misinformation, such as the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen.
“The debate about whether this is partisan cheerleading or genuine partisan-motivated reasoning — where people really, truly believe these things — comes down to what’s really in people’s hearts and minds. It’s ultimately sort of a really difficult thing to know or get a sense of,” said Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at Tufts University who co-authored the study with YouGov’s Samantha Luks. “But the fact that as soon as the presidency changes hands from one party to the other, all of a sudden people evaluate their economic situations very differently suggests that this is not necessarily just genuinely held beliefs. … Some of this, at least, is driven by people who are just using the survey as a way to express their support for their party.”
The tendency of some poll respondents to answer expressively isn’t new, and it’s not always motivated strictly by partisanship. Immediately following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, for instance, the share of Americans who told Gallup the economy was good or excellent spiked from 32% to 46% in what may have been a brief bout of patriotic reluctance to criticize the US in any way.
Nor is there, necessarily, even a clear dividing line between a sincerely held belief and a sufficiently determined willingness to act as though that belief were true.
On a practical level, the difference may not always matter that much. When it comes to this year’s midterms, for instance, a voter who honestly believes that unemployment is on the rise, and a voter who’s sufficiently motivated by partisan animus to act as though it is, are both likely to cast the same vote.
But it’s a useful reminder that public opinion is complicated — and that the way people express their views about politics isn’t always entirely literal.