Partisanship, political awareness, and retrospective evaluations, 1956-2016

Philip Edward Jones

University of Delaware

Voters often evaluate objective conditions through a partisan lens. Those who identify with the party of the president tend to see the economy as improving and the world becoming more peaceful than those who identify with the opposition. For example, at the end of the Obama presidency in 2016, around 46% of Democrats said the economy had improved over the past year compared to just 12% of Republicans.

We know less about how and why the size of these differences in partisans’ perceptions has changed over time, however. In a new piece in Political Behavior, I comb ANES survey data from 1956 to 2016 for measures of how respondents view changes in objective conditions over the past year. For each of the 103 questions included in these surveys, I calculate how much more likely in-partisans (those whose party occupies the White House) are than out-partisans to say that things have gotten better (these calculations adjust for respondent demographics using regression analysis).


Figure 1 shows these differences from 1956 to 2016, with a local average line superimposed. Differences between partisans have clearly not been constant over this time period. In the 1950s, in-partisans had on average a .19 greater probability than out-partisans of saying conditions had improved. These partisan differences declined by the 1970s (to an average of just .05) but then rebounded, increasing dramatically over the past few decades. In 2016, in-partisans had an average .21 greater probability of saying that things were getting better.

Contrary to the view of the 1950s and 60s as an era of muted partisanship, the results here suggest that the mass public was roughly as polarized in its evaluations as today. The period that stands out as unusual in these data is the 1970s, when partisan differences in perceptions were frequently minor or non-existent.

I also explore how the extent to which respondents pay attention to politics affects these results. While we might expect greater political awareness to reduce differences between partisans — since more engaged citizens should be more exposed to information about the actual state of the world — the opposite is true.


As shown in Figure 2, there are few differences between partisans with the lowest levels of political awareness across this time series. Among the least politically engaged, in- and out-partisans generally saw the world in the same way and were equally likely to say conditions were improving. Where we see the greatest disagreement among partisans is among the most politically aware. For these voters, in- and out-partisans consistently reach different conclusions about the state of the world — and it is this group of respondents that show the greatest changes over time.

Why are the most engaged the most likely to disagree about the state of the world? In further analysis, the article suggests that the more engaged a voter is, the more likely they are to internalize messaging from their party’s elites. As politicians have become increasingly polarized over the past few decades, voters who have been paying the most attention to politics have picked up on these cues and adopted increasingly polarized assessments of the world.

The results thus suggest that — absent more consensus among less polarized elites, which seems unlikely — stark partisan differences over the perceived state of the world, particularly amongst the most aware segment of the electorate, seem likely to continue.

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