Politics As Sport: The Effects Of Partisan Media On Perceptions Of Electoral Integrity
Just as fans of two opposing teams watching the same game reach opposite conclusions about the quality of referees, citizens’ assessments of the legitimacy of their democratic institutions depend to a worrying degree upon the outcome, rather than the procedures, of an election. Citizens who voted for the losing side in an election are much less likely to believe that the process was fair than citizens who voted for the winner. However, little attention has been paid to partisan media’s potential to exacerbate this phenomenon. I hypothesized that like-minded media amplify the effects of winning and losing on perceptions of electoral integrity. In other words, supporters of a winning candidate or party become even more confident in the legitimacy of the process when exposed to media that favors their side, while supporters of a losing candidate or party become even less confident in the legitimacy of the process when exposed to media that favors their side. At the same time, I hypothesizes that cross-cutting media mute the effects of winning and losing, decreasing the magnitude of changes in perceptions of electoral integrity. I tested my predictions using nationally representative panel surveys from the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections as well as the 2014 midterm elections. Whereas past research has produced little evidence that perceptions of legitimacy are affected by winning and losing in U.S. congressional levels, supporters of the winning party clearly increased in perceptions of legitimacy and supporters of the losing party clearly decreased in perceptions of legitimacy in response to the 2014 midterm elections. Nonvoters who nonetheless preferred one presidential candidate or the other likewise increased or decreased in perceptions of legitimacy according to whether their preferred candidate won or lost. Finally, like-minded media exacerbated the negative effects of losing in each of these election cycles, indicating that partisan media increase the size of the gap between winners’ and losers’ perceptions of electoral integrity. The long-term effects of partisan media are to weaken aggregate levels of confidence in the legitimacy of the electoral process itself.