Tribalism, Politics and Public Policy

Tribalism, Politics and Public Policy February 16, 2015

The Atlantic reports on a recent survey that shows in clear detail how partisanship — tribalism — distorts public opinion on policy. Specifically, the survey was about Obama’s immigration orders, which were massively popular even among Republicans — unless you mentioned that Obama supported them.

It is truly remarkable that an issue like immigration reform, which enjoys such broad support among the public, has become so mired in politics. PRRI’s most recent survey—released this week—finds that roughly three-quarters (76 percent) of Americans support the specifics of Obama’s executive action allowing the parents of children with legal status to stay in the country for up to three years if they meet certain requirements. Just one in five Americans (19 percent) is opposed to this policy. Moreover, this policy enjoys strong majority support across partisan and religious lines. 87 percent of Democrats, 77 percent of independents, and 67 percent of Republicans support this policy, as do majorities of Catholics (76 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (68 percent).

Support for the central provisions of the DREAM Act is similarly broad. Nearly seven in ten (68 percent) Americans favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they join the military or go to college, including 79 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of independents, and 60 percent of Republicans.

There are very few public policies that have such broad support in this country. But look what happened when they mentioned Obama:

However, the survey also found strong evidence of the power of partisanship at work among rank and file Americans. The survey split the sample into two demographically identical groups. The first group simply received the executive action on immigration and DREAM Act policy questions; the second group received the same verbatim questions, with a twist—the proposal was identified as “Obama’s policy.” The findings show a significant “Obama Effect” across both questions.

When there is no mention of Obama, two-thirds (67 percent) of Republicans favor allowing illegal immigrants who are parents of those with legal status to avoid deportation if they meet certain requirements. But when Obama is linked to the policy, support among Republicans drops 16 points to 51 percent. Support among independents also falls 13 points when Obama is linked to the policy, from 77 percent to 64 percent. Among Democrats, there is no statistically significant effect in support.

The “Obama Effect” is even more pronounced in attitudes about the DREAM Act. When Obama is not identified with the policy, six in ten (60 percent) Republicans favor allowing illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to gain legal resident status if they attend college or join the military. Once Obama is identified with the policy, Republican attitudes invert: Support plummets 23 points to only 37 percent, while opposition rises to nearly 6-in-10 (58 percent).

Tribalism: Still the enemy of critical thinking.

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