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Shot by the Messenger: Partisan Cues and Public Opinion Regarding National Security and War


Research has shown that messages of intra-party harmony tend to be ignored by the news media, while internal disputes, especially within the governing party, generally receive prominent coverage. We examine how messages of party conflict and cooperation affect public opinion regarding national security, as well as whether and how the reputations of media outlets matter. We develop a typology of partisan messages in the news, determining their likely effects based on the characteristics of the speaker, listener, news outlet, and message content. We hypothesize that criticism of a Republican president by his fellow partisan elites should be exceptionally damaging (especially on a conservative media outlet), while opposition party praise of the president should be the most helpful (especially on a liberal outlet). We test our hypotheses through an experiment and a national survey on attitudes regarding the Iraq War. The results show that credible communication (i.e., “costly” rhetoric harmful to a party) is more influential than “cheap talk” in moving public opinion. Ironically, news media outlets perceived as ideologically hostile can actually enhance the credibility of certain messages relative to “friendly” news sources.

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  1. Bacon added, “Other than his opposition to Lieberman's war support, Lamont doesn't have much of a campaign platform.” Following Lieberman’s defeat in the primary, liberal website Dailykos argued, “[Lieberman’s defeat] was also about Lieberman's general desire to do Bush's bidding and to attack fellow Democrats. Which he did full throttle, attacking Lamont for being about just one issue––Iraq, sounding suspiciously like a lot of Republicans in making that charge” ( 2006).

  2. Jentleson and Britton (1998) and Jentleson (1992) find that elite cues––in the form of presidential support or congressional opposition––do influence public support for U.S. conflicts. However, they conclude that the nature of elite rhetoric is endogenous to the principal policy objective, which they argue is a more central causal variable. Moreover, they do not disaggregate public opinion or consider the role of partisan conflict in mediating the effectiveness of elite cues for different groups of citizens.

  3. Individuals’ interpretations of heuristic cues depend in significant measure on their pre-existing belief systems (Hurwitz and Peffley 1987; Herrmann et al. 1997), for which party identification is typically an important (Rahn 1993; Popkin 1994, Lupia and McCubbins 1998; Groeling 2001; Nelson and Garst 2005), albeit incomplete (Holsti 2004), element.

  4. Two related lines of research in social psychology are the influence of “incongruous” (Walster et al. 1966; Koeske and Crano 1968) or “disconfirming” messages (Eagly et al. 1978).

  5. Our predictions vary depending on respondents’ partisan affiliations (Democrats, Republicans, and Independents). Hence, we actually have 24 distinct “cells” of interest in this experiment (8 treatments × 3 partisan subgroups). Given the complexity of this comparison and the limited number of participants, we adopted a randomized comparative experimental structure, rather than incorporating an additional control group that would be unexposed to any treatment. For similar reasons, we interpret our statistical results through a combination of ordinal logit analyses and simulations intended to help the reader more easily interpret and visualize the impact of the treatment conditions across respondent and treatment groups.

  6. We anticipated that, on average, viewers would rate CNN as relatively less ideologically extreme than FOX, while locating CNN to the ideological left of FOX. The data support both expectations. However, the latter, relative differential is more important for our analysis than respondents’ views concerning the absolute locations of the two outlets.

  7. Our video treatments use actual news footage re-assembled into new packages designed to maximize realism. Due to a paucity of actual Democratic praise of the president, we were forced to misattribute positive remarks by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA) to Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI), and take other remarks by actual Democrats out of context. We selected Grassley as Kohl because of their relatively low name recognition. For instance, according to one survey, 62% of Americans outside of Iowa had never heard of Grassley (Beaumont 2005). Presumably, only a subset of the remaining 38% would recognize his face or voice. In a separate pilot study, only 11 and 21% of our Democratic and Republican participants, respectively, were willing to rate Grassley on a thermometer scale. The corresponding percentages for Kohl were 21 and 23%, respectively. The remaining rhetoric types were readily available. Still, by using real-world comments, the conclusions we are able to draw from our rhetorical comparisons are somewhat more tentative than would be the case with greater control. This tradeoff did not apply to the static web pages, where statements attributed to members of Congress (MCs) were constant within the praise and criticism categories, and only the identities were changed to reflect the known stances of existing MCs.

  8. It is also possible that differences in the stature or notoriety of individual MCs featured in our treatments could influence their persuasiveness. Our data do not allow a direct test of this conjecture. But they do allow an indirect test. More senior or noteworthy MCs ought, all else equal, to engender more intense, and less neutral, feelings among respondents. After all, such MCs should be more familiar to them. If so, all else equal, we would anticipate finding systematic differences between MCs in the mean distance from the neutral points of their thermometer ratings. Yet the overall average distance from the neutral point across all MCs appearing in our treatments, and across partisan respondents rating them, is less than half of one point (.42 points) on the 0–10 scale, the largest gap across treatments by a given partisan group is about .4 points and the largest gap across partisan respondents’ ratings of the identical treatment is about .31 points. These represent gaps of 3.8, 3.6 and 2.8%. This suggests that our participants had similarly intense feelings toward the MCs featured in each treatment condition, and that these relative intensities were similar across partisan subgroups. This represents at least some suggestive evidence that variations in the stature or notoriety of the MCs in our treatments are not driving our results.

  9. Additionally, recent research has called into at least some question the oft-cited claim that experimental results derived from student subject pools are unrepresentative in important ways. Most notably, Kuhberger (1998) reviewed 136 studies of framing effects and found no significant differences between student and target samples. Our research, though not directly addressing framing, focuses on similar types of cognitive processes. Hence, while it is important to remain cautious in generalizing from a single experimental result based on a single population sample––and especially one drawn from a non-representative subject pool––by the same token, the evidence of a particular systematic bias associated with student population samples, at least in experimental contexts relatively comparable to ours, remains ambiguous.

  10. These figures set responses of “neither approve nor disapprove” to zero. If these responses are set at the mid-point between 0 and 1, overall and national security approval rise to about 7 and 15%, respectively.

  11. We remap “Other” and “None” responses into the Independents category. Including “other” partisans has no significant effect on the ideological orientation of participants in the Independent category.

  12. Most of the controls only modestly affect our results. Yet, given that many are statistically significant––suggesting that, as anticipated, random assignment did not eliminate all bias in our data – we elected to retain them in our final models.

  13. Model 1 excludes four influential outlier observations (.02% of our cases). Including these cases modestly weakens several results and modestly strengthens several others, but does not materially alter the results. We also exclude 16 observations (.09% of our cases) where participants clearly indicated in open-ended questions that they had recognized the treatment manipulations.

  14. For clarity (and brevity) of exposition, we collapse the “strong” and “somewhat” categories in our reported results. Fully disaggregated results are available from the authors.

  15. In a separate analysis (not shown) we also tested for the impact of partisan media outlet credibility. We did so in order to determine whether participants might be inclined to view statements appearing on a network they perceive as ideologically friendly as credible and hence persuasive, while viewing equivalent statements appearing on a “hostile” network as non-credible and hence unpersuasive. Unfortunately, such a model requires a three-way interaction (outlet ideology × viewer ideology × message valence), thereby substantially reducing our statistical leverage. The results from this three-way interaction model are consistent with our predictions, but in some instances at marginal levels of statistical significance. The model focusing on costly credibility allows us to collapse to a simpler two-way interaction, which greatly enhances our statistical leverage as well as simplifying the analysis and discussion of our results. Hence, we focus on the latter model.

  16. Fifty-four responses of “don’t know” or refusals to answer are coded as missing.

  17. This represents about 35% of the sample. Among CNN viewers, 104, 66, and 93 respondents identified themselves as Democrats, Republicans and Independents, respectively. Among FOX viewers, the corresponding numbers are 46, 131 and 66.

  18. PEJ reports that 41 and 39% of FOX and CNN stories, respectively, were neutral, while 15 and 9%, respectively, were categorized as multi-subject and were not coded for tone.

  19. We replicated Model 2 (not shown), first adding a battery of demographic controls (age, education, income, ethnicity, gender) and then a battery of media consumption preference controls (network TV news, Internet news, local TV news, newspapers, CNN). The demographic variables had no discernable effect on respondents’ propensities to watch FOX, or on the three relative correctness indicators. As one might expect, each of the media consumption indicators was highly significant and negatively correlated with propensity to rely on FOX. However, none mediated the effect of the issue correctness measures.

  20. Of course, contemporaneous estimates influence post-hoc retrospective evaluations. The two indicators correlate at .57, indicating that while reasonably strongly related to one another, they are not substitutes.

  21. We include controls for preferring network newscasts or the Internet as sources for national and international political news. Other media outlets (newspapers, magazines, radio) were insignificant and did not affect our results. Hence, they are excluded.

  22. The reported results exclude four influential outlier observations (or .03% of our cases). Including these outliers modestly weakens, but does not materially alter, the reported results.

  23. FOX News chairman Roger Ailes responded by complaining that pressure groups were urging candidates to “only appear on those networks and venues that give them favorable coverage” (Whitcomb 2007).


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This research was supported by a faculty research grant from the UCLA Academic Senate. We wish to thank the following individuals for assistance with various aspects of this project: Monica Arruda de Almeida, Russell Burgos, Jude Calvillo, Kellan Connor, Jennifer De Maio, Anne Drazen, Mike Franks, Jamie Georgia, Phil Gussin, Mallory Gompert, Sharon Jarvis, Shuhei Kurizaki, Michael Lofche, Blake Marchewka, Thomas Plate, Keith Rozette, Alan D. Rozzi, Francis Steen, Arthur Stein, Jana von Stein, Michael Suman, Victor Wolfenstein, Michael Xenos and Amy Zegart. We also thank Lonna Rae Atkenson, David Darmofal, Kim Gross, the editors and several anonymous reviewers for valuable comments on previous drafts of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Matthew A. Baum.

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The authors are co-equal contributors to this study and are listed in a randomly designated order.


Appendix A: Coding of Political Knowledge Scale

Derived from 10 questions: (1) Who has the final responsibility to decide if a law is constitutional or not?; (2/3) Which political party has the most members in the United States [House of Representatives]/[Senate]?; (4) In order for an international treaty to become law in the United States, who, other than the President, must approve it?; (5) What percentage of members of the U.S. Senate and House are necessary to override a presidential veto?; (6) What are the first ten amendments to the Constitution called?; (7)Who is the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives?; (8) Who is the majority leader of the U.S. Senate?; (9) Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?; (10) Who was Vice-president of the United States when Bill Clinton was President? The resulting scale runs from 0 to 10 (μ = 5.59, σ = 2.30).

Appendix B: Key Pew Survey Questions

FOX, CNN, Network News, or Internet Primary News Source

How have you been getting most of your news about national and international issues…From television, from newspapers, from radio, from magazines, or from the Internet? IF ‘TELEVISION’ AS EITHER 1ST OR 2ND RESPONSE ASK: Do you get most of your news about national and international issues from: Local news programming, ABC Network news, CBS Network news; NBC Network news; CNN Cable news, The FOX News Cable Channel, DK/Refused.

Iraq War Right

Do you think the U.S. made the right decision or the wrong decision in using military force against Iraq? Recoding: 0 = wrong decision, .5 = don’t know, 1 = right decision.

Follow Iraq War

Tell me if you happened to follow this news story very closely, fairly closely, not too closely, or not at all closely: News about the current situation in Iraq.

Know U.S. Casualty Level in Iraq

Since the start of military action in Iraq, about how many U.S. soldiers have been killed? To the best of your knowledge, has it been under 500, 500 to 1000, 1000 to 2000, or more than 2000: Under 500, 500 to 1,000, 1,000 to 2,000, More than 2,000, Don’t know/Refused. Recoding: 1 = 1,000–2,000 (correct response), 0 = all other responses.

News Quality Scale

Constructed from four questions: (1) In general, do you think news organizations get the facts straight, or do you think that their stories and reports are often inaccurate? Coded: 1 = get the facts straight, 0 = stories often inaccurate, .5 = “don’t know”; (2) In presenting the news dealing with political and social issues, do you think that news organizations deal fairly with all sides, or do they tend to favor one side? Coded: 1 = Deal fairly with all sides, 0 = Tend to favor one side, .5 = Don’t know/Refused; (3) In general, do you think news organizations are pretty independent, or are they often influenced by powerful people and organizations? Coded: 1 = Pretty independent, 0 = Often influenced by powerful people and organizations, .5 = Don’t know/Refused; and (4) In general, do you think news organizations pay too much attention to GOOD NEWS, too much attention to BAD NEWS, or do they mostly report the kinds of stories they should be covering? Coded: 1 = Report the kinds of stories they should be covering, 0 = Too much attention to [good or bad] news, .5 = Don’t know/Refused. The elements were combined to form a 0–4 scale (μ = 1.14, σ = 1.13).

“Republicans More Correct” Questions

(1) Has the [Republican/Democratic Party] become too conservative, too liberal, or is it about right on social issues such as homosexuality and abortion? (2) [D]o you think the [Republican/Democratic Party] has become too conservative, too liberal, or is it about right on economic issues such as taxes and government programs? (3) [D]o you think the [Republican/Democratic Party] is too tough, not tough enough, or about right in its approach to foreign policy and national security issues? Recoded (each question): 1 = about right, 0 = all other responses. Summary scales created by subtracting Democratic score from Republican score, yielding three variables running from −1 to 1, where −1 = Democrats more right, 0 = both parties equal, and 1 = Republicans more right.

News Outlet Favorability Questions

[W]ould you say your overall opinion of… (INSERT ITEM) is very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable?: (1) Network television news such as ABC, NBC and CBS, (2) The daily newspaper you are most familiar with, (3) Large nationally influential newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, (4) Local television news, (5) Cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Recoding (for each question): 1 = very unfavorable, 2 = mostly unfavorable, 2.5 = never heard of/can’t rate, 3 = mostly favorable, 4 = very favorable.

Media Too Critical of President

Do you think the press has been too critical of the Bush Administration policies and performance so far, not critical enough or do you think that the press has handled this about right? Recoding: 1 = not critical enough, 2 = about right or don’t know/refused, 3 = press too critical.

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Baum, M.A., Groeling, T. Shot by the Messenger: Partisan Cues and Public Opinion Regarding National Security and War. Polit Behav 31, 157–186 (2009).

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  • Public opinion
  • Foreign policy
  • Media effects
  • Media bias
  • Iraq