Are voters' preferences over stimulus checks driven by party loyalty or financial gain?
Experiment shows Republicans' fealty to Trump overrides their desire for stimulus money
By Eric Loepp and Jarrod Kelly
What happens when a president and Congressional leaders in his own party disagree on important policy issues? This is quite uncommon these days, but in December 2020 and January 2021, it happened. President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell publicly differed on a highly salient issue: stimulus checks.
The second round of pandemic relief included a provision that Americans be issued $600 checks, the figure McConnell preferred. However, Trump wanted $2,000 checks instead, the same amount Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats in Congress had been calling for. How do partisan voters respond to such visible policy splits between Republican leaders? Do voters care that in this instance Trump aligned more with Pelosi than with McConnell? And does that change their view on how big they think stimulus checks should be?
To address these questions, we conducted a survey experiment in early January 2021. We recruited a nationally representative sample of Republicans through the survey firm Qualtrics. Each participant was asked if they believe the Senate should join the House in voting to increase the check amount from $600 to $2,000.
The research twist was this: respondents were randomly assigned to read one of five different messages before making a decision. Each message noted that a particular politician or group of politicians endorsed the stimulus increase. Here are the messages:
Message 1 informed respondents that some politicians support increasing check payments
Message 2 informed respondents that some politicians, including Donald Trump, support increasing check payments
Message 3 informed respondents that some politicians, including Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats, support increasing check payments
Message 4 informed respondents that some politicians, including Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi and Congressional Democrats, support increasing check payments
Message 5 informed respondents that some politicians, including Donald Trump, support increasing check payments, but that Mitch McConnell and many Senate Republicans oppose it
We expected that Republicans would be more likely to support a higher stimulus payment if Donald Trump recommend it rather that if Speaker Pelosi and Congressional Democrats recommended it. This should especially be the case among strong Republicans who feel very close to their party. This is precisely what happens. Relative to a baseline level of support – which features no endorsement at all – support for increasing the stimulus amount goes up among strong Republicans when they are reminded that Donald Trump supports it. This effect is modest, though: the magnitude of the difference is only about one third of one point on a seven-point scale, and a statistical comparison of the two categories does not achieve conventional levels of significance. Why? Fallout from the Capitol riots temporarily soured many Republicans on President Trump. (Support has bounced back in the weeks since.)
What really stands out, though, is that strong Republicans are significantly less supportive of a stimulus check increase if they are told Democrats endorse it. Even though many Republicans were down on President Trump at the time of the survey, they still react negatively to a policy endorsement made by a political outgroup. They express less support for a bill endorsed by Democrats than they do for a bill endorsed by no partisan figures at all, and much less than a bill endorsed by Donald Trump.
But what if Donald Trump and Congressional Democrats both endorse a higher stimulus check? In this case, support falls in between a Trump-only endorsement and Democrats-only endorsement. Critically, though, support is much closer to the latter than the former. That is, for strong Republicans, the benefits of a Trump endorsement are heavily offset when Democrats also endorse the bill.
President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders are currently considering an additional $1,400 stimulus check that would bring the recent $600 amount up to the $2,000 Trump and Congressional Democrats have been calling for. Our research suggests that although additional stimulus checks are popular–even when Democrats supported the increase, strong Republicans were closer to the “agree” end of the scale than the “disagree” end—the pull of negative affect remains strong: An idea touted by a Republican president loses considerable support among Republican voters when they learn that Democrats also (happen to) support the same idea.
Bipartisanship is not necessarily advantageous when politics is so strongly polarized.
Biden is calling for unity during a time of national crisis, but advocates of additional stimulus money should bear in mind a lesson from this research: in a time of affective polarization, bi-partisanship is not necessarily advantageous. If a party wishes to cultivate support for a policy within its ranks, it may wish to avoid mention that some in the other party also like the policy. We hasten to add that we find this reality to be normatively troubling, but they are consistent with a picture that appears to be taking shape in Washington: Biden will need to forgo efforts to achieve bi-partisan support for at least certain aspects of his pandemic-relief package.
Eric Loepp is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Jarrod Kelly is an assistant professor of political science at North Carolina Wesleyan College.