Politics, abortion and the false consensus effect. Why it matters | Opinion

By Berwood Yost

Candidate quality emerged as a common topic of discussion after the 2022 midterm elections. Inseparable from the conversations about candidate quality was how a candidate’s policy position on specific issues, notably abortion rights, played into these perceptions.

Despite pre-election polls consistently showing that few (9%) voters in Pennsylvania believed that all abortions should be banned, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano expressed this unmoderated perspective, which was one reason for his decisive loss.

Mastriano, a state senator from Franklin County, is of course not alone in his belief about abortion policy; his stance continues to be the expressed position of many Republican legislators throughout the state and nation despite the accumulating evidence that their positions run counter to public opinion.

Why might that be? And, if this happens for Republicans on abortion rights, do Democrats engage in the same sort of non-mainstream positioning on other issues?

We asked registered voters in Pennsylvania about which party they perceive as being better aligned with majority opinion on seven different topics.

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The survey did not test support for specific elements of any policy issue or define those positions in any way, so these questions only assess how voters perceive the parties’ overall issue positions and not what those positions are.

A majority of Pennsylvania voters think the Democratic Party’s position on abortion (53%) is closest to the views held by most Americans. The state’s voters also believe that is true for Democrats’ position on Social Security and Medicare (50%). On the other hand, a majority or near majority believes the Republican Party’s positions on immigration (51%) and public safety (49%) are closest to the views held by most Americans.

A sizable number of voters say they don’t know or that neither party best represents the views of most Americans, but this data shows that, when asked, voters have made judgments about which party’s issue positions are more mainstream.

The data is also clear that partisanship skews these judgments: those who closely identify with a party are much more likely to believe their party best represents the views of most Americans.

More than three in four Republican identifiers feel that their party positions on policing and immigration are aligned with majority opinion, while more than three in four Democratic identifiers feel that way about Social Security and abortion. At the same time, partisan perception of their issue advantage is weakest for Republicans on abortion and is weakest for Democrats on government spending.

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Self-identified independent voters represent the best opportunities for each party to expand their pool of voters, and independents are more likely to see the Democrats’ position on abortion as more mainstream.

What makes the abortion issue most perilous for Republicans right now, at least in Pennsylvania, is that even Republican-leaning voters think that Democrats’ views on abortion are more in line with majority opinion. This is the only instance where partisan leaners think the other party better represents majority opinion.

Voters in Pennsylvania understand that each party offers them different policy ideas, and some of these positions are seen as more mainstream than others.

Judgments about the Republican Party’s views on abortion appear to have created a problem for them, in that even some voters who mostly identify with the GOP see their perspective as outside the mainstream.

But Democrats should take note—while their policies on abortion and Social Security may be perceived by independents as more mainstream, Republicans have a pretty clear advantage among independent voters on immigration and public safety, which would produce an advantage if those issues become salient in a future election.

It is clear that voters do not believe that one party is better aligned with majority opinion on every issue, but partisanship prevents many policymakers and advocates from recognizing that fact.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Experiments in social psychology have demonstrated that humans often misjudge or exaggerate the commonality of attitudes and opinions, something known as the false consensus effect.

The false consensus effect has two important consequences.

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The first is the tendency for people to overestimate how many others share their beliefs. The second is that when we meet someone who believes something we do not, we tend to think there is probably something unique or perhaps aberrant about their personality that leads them to think that way.

False consensus is driven by the oversimplification of problems and their solutions and by limited information flows, especially information flows within social networks.

The data here reminds me that there is value in getting outside of our own partisan networks, and our own heads. We would all be wise to remember that our views are often not shared by most other people, and that those who think differently about an issue probably do not have some deep-seated character flaw.

Berwood Yost is the director and chief methodologist of The Franklin & Marshall College Poll at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. 

Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Capital-Star Guest Contributor

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