Malhotra, Neil, Laurel Harbridge, & Brian F. Harrison. “Compromise vs. Compromises: What does ‘Bipartisanship’ Really Mean to Americans?”

Public opinion polls show that the public widely prefers bipartisanship over partisanship but almost none of these polls define what bipartisanship and bipartisan outcomes actually mean. While the public may prefer bipartisanship in the abstract, they may also prefer partisan outcomes closer to their preferences than less ideal bipartisan outcomes. To test these premises, we conducted a set of three short Internet-based survey experiments to examine whether bipartisanship increases support for public policies, how the public defines bipartisanship, and whether there are limitations to support for bipartisan legislation. In each case we focus on relatively low-salience issues where the experimental conditions are realistic. In particular, we seek to contribute the following: 1) a better understanding of what the public means by bipartisan cooperation and the implications this has on policy formation and the behavior of elected officials, and 2) whether there are institutional and individual level factors that also moderate support for bipartisan cooperation. Institutional features include majority control; individual level factors include party identification, strength of party identification, and issue salience. By looking at these responses in conjunction with the respondent’s party identification, we hypothesize that evaluations of bipartisanship are biased toward one’s own party. That is, only a minor compromise by one’s own party may be viewed as bipartisan but a similar sized compromise by the other party may not be viewed as bipartisan.

The findings suggest that while existing surveys show strong support for bipartisanship and bipartisan behavior among members of Congress, the public actually supports legislation approved by a majority coalition made up of their own party’s partisans equally to legislation that is made up of a coalition of both parties. In other words, there is not a partisan penalty yet there also is not a bipartisanship benefit to legislative coalitions. This paper is forthcoming at Legislative Studies Quarterly.

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