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Sample size: 2365
Field period: 11/11/2010-1/17/2011
Many studies have shown that frames can increase the weight of a consideration on a political evaluation. In this experiment, I test whether an attribution frame that decreases perceptions that President Obama was responsible for unfavorable economic conditions can decrease the weight of economic considerations on evaluations of Obama. This is a type of framing effect as yet rarely demonstrated. The experiment shows that attribution frames decreased the impact of economic considerations on evaluations of president Obama. This framing effect appears to have worked by making considerations applicable, not merely accessible, a finding that advances our understanding of the psychological underpinnings of framing and the power of elite discourse to shape public opinion.
Research question: Can an attribution frame that decreases perceptions that President Obama was responsible for unfavorable economic conditions can decrease the weight of economic considerations on evaluations of Obama?
Specific Hypothesis: Subjects in the President Not Responsible Condition should weight their perceptions of economic conditions less in evaluations of Obama than subjects in the other conditions.
All subjects were asked an Economic Attribution question: “To what extent do you think the Barack Obama administration is responsible for current economic conditions?” Response options ranged along a horizontal scale from 0, labeled “Not at all responsible,” to 10, labeled “Entirely responsible.” The manipulation consisted of the following information, provided just before the attribution item:
Control Condition: “In 2009, at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, the unemployment rate was 8 percent. According to the latest official figures, the unemployment rate is 9.8 percent.”
President Responsible Condition: “Many economists have argued that the Obama administration’s efforts to boost the economy, like the $787 billion economic stimulus package, have not produced many new jobs, but may have created a drag on recovery by spending roughly $2.6 trillion more than the government has during his presidency. In 2009, at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, the unemployment rate was 8 percent. According to the latest official figures, the unemployment rate is 9.8 percent.”
President Not Responsible Condition: “The unemployment rate has been rising since the last year and a half of George W. Bush’s presidency. In 2009, at the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidency, the unemployment rate was 8 percent. According to the latest official figures, the unemployment rate is 9.8 percent. Many economists argue that presidents have virtually no control over the economy. Before Obama took office, economists predicted that the unemployment rate would be around 10 percent for the first two years of his presidency no matter what Obama did in office.”
A manipulation check showed that respondents in the President Not Responsible Condition rated Obama’s blame about a third of a point lower on the 0-10 scale than those in the Control Condition, a statistically significant difference at the .05 level (controlling for various known correlates of economic attribution). Since the public typically blames the president for economic conditions, I expected no effect from the President Responsible Condition. In fact, subjects in this condition ranked Obama’s responsibility slightly higher than subjects in the control condition (p = .11). All else equal, respondents in the President Responsible condition ranked Obama’s responsibility about half a point higher than those in the President Not Responsible Condition (the difference between coefficients is statistically significant at the .05 level).
The evaluation measure consisted of two items. Respondents were asked to rate Obama on a feeling thermometer ranging from 0 to 100 and a job approval question, with five responses ranging from “strongly disapprove” to “strongly approve.” The correlation between these items was .90, so I combined them and rescaled the combined evaluation variable to a 0 – 100 scale (Krosnick and Brannon 1993; mean 48.9, standard deviation 30.2).
Question wordings: “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President?” Strongly approve, approve, neither approve nor disapprove, disapprove, strongly disapprove.
“We'd like you to rate Barack Obama using something we call the feeling thermometer. Ratings between 50 and 100 degrees mean that you feel favorably and warm toward Obama; ratings between 0 and 50 degrees mean that you don't feel favorably toward Obama and that you don't care too much for him. You would rate him at the 50 degree mark if you don't feel particularly warm or cold toward Obama. How do you rate Barack Obama on this thermometer?”
Testing the hypothesis requires a model of presidential evaluation as a function of economic perceptions, the frame, the interaction between the two, and other controls known to affect evaluations of presidents. The interaction between economic perceptions and the President Not Responsible Frame, the main concern here, is negative and statistically significant (p < .05, all tests two-tailed). This result supports the hypothesis under question. Individuals given the President Not Responsible frame weighed economic perceptions less than those in the other two conditions. The coefficient for the interaction (-2.4) is about half the coefficient of economic perceptions (4.8), the estimated effect of these perceptions for those individuals not in the President Not Responsible Condition. Thus, subjects encountering the President Not Responsible frame weighed economic perceptions about half as heavily as did other subjects. To illustrate, consider the “punishment” associated with revising one’s economic perceptions from “fairly good” to “very bad,” a two-point shift in the economic perceptions variable. All else equal, such a shift is estimated to result in a drop of roughly 10 points for those in the President Responsible or Control conditions (4.8*2). In contrast, such a shift would result in lowering Obama’s evaluation only about 5 points for those in the President Not Responsible Condition (4.8*2) – (2.4*2).