Who's in control alters our opinion of how things are

Who's in control alters our opinion of how things are
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Gallup recently released results of its annual survey of Americans’ views on divided government. The poll found a record-high 59 percent of Republicans prefer when one on party controls both Congress and the White House, compared to only 30 percent of Democrats.

Although the results show a widening gap of polarization, the outcome is not surprising. Every year since 2002, members of the party in control of the White House have expressed a preference for unified control of Washington. By contrast, “Independents are consistently less likely than either Republicans or Democrats to favor one-party government, regardless of which party’s president is in power.” So, independents are consistent in their views, while party-affiliated Americans change their opinion depending upon who occupies the White House.


The fact that partisans’ views swing back and forth, based upon whether or not their own party is in power, is consistent with research showing that people examine the same set of circumstances differently based upon which party benefits. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Thomas Rudolph have written that, in answering these types of survey questions, “Partisans increasingly base government evaluations … on the performance criteria that are most favorable to their preferred party and least favorable to their non-preferred party.” In other words, partisans focus their attention on supporting their own side, rather than honestly considering all available information.

Other research has shown that both Democrats and Republicans will adjust the way they perceive information about their home state’s economic circumstances based upon the party affiliation of the governor. Likewise, people will allow their partisanship to supersede factual information about the national economy if those facts benefit the opposing party. In polls taken in times of post-recession economic growth, both Democrats and Republicans answered factual questions about whether the economy had recently improved based upon which party controlled the White House. Similarly, Democrats and Republicans flipped their views about whether presidents had the power to affect gas prices after President Obama won the 2008 election.

In October 2016, Wisconsin voters were surveyed about whether the economy had gotten better or worse “over the past year.” Republicans by a 28-point margin believed the economy had gotten worse. Four months later, shortly after President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden slams Trump in new ad: 'The death toll is still rising.' 'The president is playing golf' Brazil surpasses Russia with second-highest coronavirus case count in the world Trump slams Sessions: 'You had no courage & ruined many lives' MORE had taken office, Wisconsin voters were asked the exact same question. This time, GOP voters by a margin of 54 points believed the economy had gotten better. Democrats who were polled experienced a similar conversion, but in reverse. As noted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the change in control of the White House “did more than change the expectation of Republicans and Democrats about the economy’s future performance, it altered their assessments of the economy’s actual performance.”

On the question of divided government, the most obvious partisan benefit of unified control is that it makes it much easier for the party in power to enact its policy priorities. It is, therefore, unsurprising that members of the minority party find this prospect unappealing. In answering the Gallup question, respondents no doubt considered this dynamic first and foremost. But what really happens during periods of divided government? Is it good or bad for the country?

Some of today’s most impactful programs have been enacted during times of unified control, such as Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, the No Child Left Behind law, and Medicare Part D. This is not to say that it is impossible to achieve bipartisan success when Congress and the White House are divided. The acrimonious relationship between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonHas Justice Department partisanship finally hit a wall?  Bill Clinton, James Patterson team up for another book, 'The President's Daughter' Why Trump, GOP are running into trouble in Arizona MORE nevertheless resulted in four consecutive budget surpluses. President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill enjoyed a much friendlier relationship and were able to collaborate on the landmark 1986 tax reform law.

It would be difficult to argue that the gridlock and stalemate of the past two decades in Washington would improve under divided government. The failure to compromise and agree on budget priorities is largely responsible for the exploding national debt, which continues to increase no matter who is in charge. Since 2000, the national debt has increased from $5.7 trillion to almost $22 trillion today. There undoubtedly will be a future reckoning, but so far the ballooning deficits and debt seem to have no impact on Washington’s decision-making.

Some argue that the financial markets crave stability and, therefore, prefer divided government, but historical results don’t prove that out. According to Goldman Sachs, small-capitalization stocks, as measured by the Russell 2000 index, since 1979 have seen a substantial boost (+21.8 percent) during times of unified control, more than double the results (+9.5 percent) that occur when government control is divided. For S&P 500 large-cap stocks, divided government has resulted in annualized gains of 10.8 percent, compared to 16.4 percent when one party controls Congress and the White House.

It is unlikely that the respondents to the Gallup survey gave any of these factors much consideration. Mostly, they just want their party to win. Regardless of who prevails in the upcoming midterm elections, it is doubtful that the level of polarization will subside. Until we all take a cue from the independents surveyed by Gallup and find a way to bridge the partisan divide, the prospects of a collaborative government look very slim indeed.

Former Congressman Jason Altmire (D-Pa.) served three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2007-2013. He is the author of the 2017 book, “Dead Center: How Political Polarization Divided America and What We Can Do About It.” Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.