Do Democrats and Republicans Live in Different Worlds?

There’s so many different worlds, so many different suns. And we have just one world, but we live in different ones. — Dire Straits

Senator Daniel P. Moynihan once said that everyone is “entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”1 Yet it seems that Democrats and Republicans increasingly live “in different worlds” where they not only disagree about politics but also believe in different versions of reality. Ask American voters how the economy is doing and you’ll see this: people’s perceptions of objective economic measures, such as the size of the budget deficit, are more positive when their preferred party holds power.2 Something similar happens if you ask about other issues, for example, foreign affairs or the legitimacy of elections — people have a tendency to believe a claim is true if it fits with their preferred party’s narrative.3 What’s more, the tendency for partisans to believe in different sets of what they see as “facts” has grown more common over the past few decades.4

In a recent study, the Center for Media Engagement looked into key predictors of people’s tendency to disagree on the “facts” by examining Democrats’ and Republicans’ beliefs in a series of claims concerning two hot-button issues: the COVID-19 pandemic and recent U.S. elections. The study found that people were more likely to rate a claim as true if it supported their political party. In fact, political partisanship was more predictive of their beliefs in true and false claims than any other factor, including education.

Partisanship is More Influential on People’s Beliefs than Education

We wanted to see if Democrats and Republicans really believe in different realities about COVID-19 and U.S. elections. That’s exactly what we found. Across the four claims in our survey, people were more likely to rate a claim as true if it was favorable to their preferred political party. As noted above, this pattern was not trivial — people’s partisanship was more predictive of their beliefs than any other factor, including education. If you wanted to predict what a person believed to be true about one of the claims in our study, you might guess that more educated people would generally be more accurate. That would be true, although only for some of the claims.5 Your best bet would be to guess based on partisanship: assuming that Democrats and Republicans would believe what they might want to be true.

Are There Additional Factors that Contribute to Partisan Beliefs in Different Claims?

We looked at two additional factors: affective polarization (people’s inclination to hate the “other party”) and the use of online search and social media platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube). We found that Democrats’ and Republicans’ tendencies to hold differing beliefs  was stronger when polarization was higher. In other words, people who really dislike the “other side” are particularly prone to evaluating claims through the lens of partisanship. We found this to be the case for each of the four claims in our survey.

In some cases, the use of specific platforms was also associated with people’s tendency to disagree on the facts. To our surprise, factual disagreements were more pronounced among Google users than non-users and weaker among Twitter users than non-users. For both platforms, these relationships were found for only some of the claims in our survey.

What Does this Mean for News Organizations? 

This research sheds light on some possible explanations for why partisans live in different worlds. Regardless of whether claims about COVID-19 or the integrity of U.S. elections are true or false, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to believe claims favorable to their party. This research highlights challenges that newsrooms are already facing in communicating about partisan issues and indicates that these challenges may be strongest among news audiences who are more polarized. Additionally, the research points to the relationship between the search and social platforms that people use and their corresponding perceptions, or misperceptions. While newsrooms have long understood the influence of people’s information sources, these findings confirm that those sources are related to what people see as true and what they deem false. We hope that this work can draw attention to the importance of sharing a common understanding of the one world we all share.

  1. Moynihan DP (1983) More than social security was at stake. The Washington Post, 18 January, A17.[]
  2. Achen CH and Bartels LM (2017) Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press; Bartels LM (2002) Beyond the running tally: partisan bias in political perceptions. Political Behavior 24(2): 117–150.[]
  3. Gaines BJ, Kuklinski JH, Quirk PJ, et al. (2007) Same facts, different interpretations: partisan motivation and opinion on Iraq. The Journal of Politics 69(4): 957–974; Reuters (2021) 53% of republicans view Trump as true U.S. president. Reuters.[]
  4. Jones PE (2020) Partisanship, political awareness, and retrospective evaluations, 1956–2016. Political Behavior 42: 1295–1317.[]
  5. For more information about education as a predictor of accuracy, check out the full research article (it’s available for free) or this Center for Media Engagement whitepaper.[]