Conditional Motivated Reasoning: How the Local Economy Moderates Partisan Motivations in Economic Perceptions


Using motivated reasoning, voters rely on partisanship as a heuristic for evaluating the economy in belief-preserving ways. Yet recent findings show that these motivations may be restricted by a range of contextual factors. We argue that partisan motivations in economic perceptions are moderated by the local economic context. As conditions worsen, a negative information environment leads in-partisans to political ambivalence that reduces confidence in party cues when evaluating the economy. As conditions improve, the motivation for in-partisans to rely on party cues is restored. As positive information has been shown to be less influential for opinion formation than negative information, and out-group members tend to be most prone to motivated reasoning, the economic context should moderate the political motivations of out-partisans to a lesser extent than in-partisans. A multilevel analysis of the 1980 to 2012 American National Election Studies supplemented with state-level data on unemployment and per capita disposable income supports this argument. The effects of in-party attachments on economic perceptions are diminished as economic conditions deteriorate and grow stronger as conditions improve. Moreover, the conditional effects of economic performance on subjective perceptions are stronger for in-partisans than for out-partisans.

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Political Research Quarterly