A Uniter and a Divider: American Presidential Campaigns and Partisan Perceptions of the National Economy

AuthorCorwin D. Smidt
Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 329 –340
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19875712
Partisanship strengthens political engagement, but it also
distorts it. Partisans are motivated to seek out attitude-
confirming information, view it favorably, and be skeptical of
attitude-inconsistent information (Lodge & Taber, 2013;
Redlawsk, 2002; Stroud, 2008). These traits polarize percep-
tions of information that is seemingly straightforward
(Gaines, Kuklinski, Quirk, Peyton, & Verkuilen, 2007; Nyhan
& Reifler, 2010), such that partisan differences are often
greatest among the most informed (Bartels, 2008) or in high-
information contexts (Jerit & Barabas, 2012). But scholars
also demonstrate that these perceptual biases are contextually
dependent, meaning that these damning portrayals of parti-
sans may not always apply. If the information environment
fails to provide enough supportive information or people are
motivated to hold accurate perceptions, then partisan biases
can shrink (Bolsen, Druckman, & Cook, 2014; Bullock,
Gerber, Hill, & Huber, 2015; Druckman, 2012; Jerit &
Barabas, 2012; Parker-Stephen, 2013; Prior, Sood, & Khanna,
2015; Redlawsk, Civettini, & Emmerson, 2010).
In this regards, it is important to examine whether presi-
dential campaigns and its many contexts work to strengthen
or weaken partisan perceptual differences. Indeed, extant
studies provide an inconsistent picture of campaign effects
on partisan perceptions, documenting campaigns as either
unifying or polarizing perceptions across different domains.
Campaigns tend to polarize issue opinions or candidate eval-
uations (e.g., Kim, Taber, & Lodge, 2010), but they also
inform and unify mass perceptions of each candidate’s issue
position (Alvarez, 1997; Conover & Feldman, 1989; Franklin,
1991; Markus, 1982; Vavreck, 2009).
Why might campaigns be a uniter of some partisan per-
ceptions and a polarizer of others? I propose that is because
they are both a uniter and a divider. Presidential campaigns
contain competing or countervailing forces on public percep-
tions, where the net contribution of these forces varies by
campaign context and domain. Targeted communication pro-
vides partisans with a greater opportunity to select preference-
consistent information, and these effects are likely largest
among voters in battleground states. But elections and cam-
paign engagement also foster a social context that promotes
accurate perceptions as many types of campaign experiences
enhance accuracy motives and open-minded thinking
(Brader, 2006; Druckman, 2012; Kam, 2006, 2007; Marcus,
Neuman, & Mackuen, 2000). Differences in contexts over
time and across safe and battleground states provide us the
observational leverage to identify these countervailing
I evaluate these propositions by examining the dynamics
of partisan differences in economic evaluations across mul-
tiple campaigns. Various panel survey trends from campaigns
since 1980 fail to show campaigns dividing partisan
875712APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19875712American Politics ResearchSmidt
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, USA
Corresponding Author:
Corwin D. Smidt, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
Email: smidtc@msu.edu
A Uniter and a Divider: American
Presidential Campaigns and Partisan
Perceptions of the National Economy
Corwin D. Smidt1
Do American presidential campaigns polarize or unify partisan perceptions? I propose that they do both, where the balance
of these countervailing forces varies by context. Campaign messages enable partisan differences, especially in battleground
states, but campaigns also promote social contexts that foster accuracy motives and reduce the effects of partisan biases
nationwide. After documenting panel data evidence of campaign trends toward unity, further tests compare the national
effects of campaign engagement with the local effects of campaign intensity using daily survey data on national economic
evaluations. In support of the countervailing forces framework, national engagement in presidential campaigns generally
increased levels of cross-partisan agreement by campaign’s end, but local campaign intensity enhanced partisan differences
in rate of responsiveness to the campaign. Although targeted campaigns reduced unifying effects in many states, presidential
campaigns typically have a net unifying effect on American economic perceptions, thereby strengthening economic voting.
campaign effects, partisan biases, campaign learning, economic voting

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